Talks on future of public option in healthcare bill intensify in the Senate

Senate Democrats from the liberal and centrist factions are engaged in increasingly urgent talks aimed at bridging the divide within the party over the public option in the healthcare reform bill.

With the end of the year rapidly approaching and no agreement over whether the bill should create a government-run insurance program – or at least what form it should take – Democrats said Thursday they are deepening their resolve to unite the party and renewing their efforts to court Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine).

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“Our caucus now is in the process of negotiating with ourselves because we need all 60 of us to get this done. And this issue is being negotiated as we speak,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), a centrist who opposes the public option in the Senate healthcare bill. “We knew this day would come and it has come.”

Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said that the public option and abortion funding remain the two major sticking points among Democrats. “What [Majority Leader] Harry Reid [D-Nev.] is looking for and what we need is to come together with an answer on public option. It’s one of the two, I think, really critical issues,” he said.

At meetings and in private conversations throughout Thursday, centrists huddled together and liberals maintained their lines of communication strategizing for an endgame on the public option. Those discussions have taken on a new sense of urgency, senators said.

“There’s sort of a new initiative on the public option which is highly useful,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), a vocal proponent of the public option. “There’s going to be a group of people representing various points of view who are going to just closet themselves and try and resolve this so that you can put something on the floor that can pass.”

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a centrist who supports the public option, is developing a new version and working closely with other centrists such as Landrieu and Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who oppose the public option in Reid’s bill.

“A number of, if you will, factions within our caucus are, I think, mindful of the need to pass a solid bill,” Carper said. “There’s a growing realization there’s so much good in the legislation that at the end of the day, we’ve got to find common ground on this issue.”

Carper hosted a meeting with a number of centrists Thursday evening, including Landrieu, Lincoln, Nelson and Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.). Earlier Thursday, Landrieu, Lincoln and Nelson met with Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell (Wash.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.).

Even as Senate Democratic leaders, White House officials and individual senators such as Carper and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) continued to inch toward a deal, the rift between their party’s two wings was evident.

Lieberman remains steadfastly opposed to any type of public option. “I came out of respect for Tom Carper, who’s a good friend of mine, but my position remains the same,” he said after exiting a meeting with centrists Thursday evening. “I say it every time before I go into one of these discussions: I feel really strongly about this. I’m going to come and listen but generally speaking I didn’t hear anything that changes my mind.”

Meanwhile liberals such as Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) made plain they are in no mood to further shift their positions to accommodate their centrist counterparts.

“There’s no negotiations, as far as I’m concerned,” Brown said. “We’ve compromised the public option three times -- maybe four depending on how you define it -- and this bill’s not going to continue to become more pro-insurance-company. End of story.”

Durbin indicated that Senate Democratic leaders, White House officials and individual Democrats are reaching out to all sides. “There are several different groups talking about this and I know that there is communication with Sen. Brown, Sen. Sanders. On the other side, I think the conversation is involving a lot of other senators,” he said.

The intransigence of Lieberman makes winning Snowe’s support all the more vital to Democrats. If Reid and the White House can persuade liberals to swallow more compromises to win over Snowe, he can get the 60 votes he needs without Lieberman.

Carper and other centrists are in regular contact with Snowe and are partly basing the latest compromise proposal on her notion to set up a fallback “trigger” public option that would only kick in on a state-by-state basis if private insurance companies fail to meet benchmarks for availability and affordability.

“For me, I want to make sure at the end of the day that Sen. Snowe will feel comfortable in joining us. To me, that’s important. I think it should be important to the president and to our party,” Carper said.


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