Senate Democrats claim ‘broad agreement’ on public option

A group of liberal and centrist Senate Democrats have come to a “broad agreement” to resolve intra-party disputes over healthcare reform legislation, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday evening.

The deal is intended to provide a compromise on the public insurance option that has drawn objections from several centrist Democrats and Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.). The breakthrough could allow the Senate to move a healthcare bill before it breaks for Christmas.

ADVERTISEMENT
Though Reid did not provide details of the compromise on Tuesday night, it appears to involve the establishment of private, nonprofit health insurance programs that would be set up by the Office of Personnel Management, something members have recently been discussing. These programs would be run by private companies, but a new government insurance plan could be triggered if the private plans are not acceptable.

The deal would also allow people between 55 and 64 who do not have insurance through an employer to buy into Medicare.

Reid portrayed his announcement as a major milestone on the road to healthcare reform – and flatly denied that Democrats had jettisoned the proposal to create a government-run public option insurance program that is favored by liberals.

In a statement, Reid said the consensus Democrats had reached included a public option that would ensure competitition for insurance companies and choices for the public.

Reid will send a proposal to the Congressional Budget Office Wednesday for a cost estimate before senators take any additional steps, he said. “Hopefully we’ll know something from them by the end of the week,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a centrist who supports the public option.

“It’s been a long journey,” Reid said Tuesday night. “But tonight we’ve overcome a real problem that we had. I think it’s fair to say that the debate [at] this stage has portrayed as a very divisive one and many have assumed that people of different perspectives can’t come together. But I think that what we were able to work out the last few days, culminating tonight, belays that.”

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), a staunch proponent of the public option, indicated that both sides made concessions. “You’re going to find nobody who’s happy,” he said, adding “I’m smiling.”

Despite Reid's sunny assessment of the state of the negotiations between centrist and liberal Democrats, one of the liberals who participated in the talks swiftly issued a statement reemphasizing his commitment to the public option -- and introducing a hint of skepticism into the proceedings.

“While I appreciate the willingness of all parties to engage in good-faith discussions, I do not support proposals that would replace the public option in the bill with a purely private approach," Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) said in a statement. 

The working group convened last week by Reid has been led by liberal Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and centrist Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).

The public option has been the major issue dividing the liberal majority of Democrats from a handful of centrist holdouts. Efforts by Reid and others, including Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), to devise compromise versions of the public option failed to bring centrists such as Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Lieberman on board with liberals.

In recent days, the liberal-centrist working group seemed to have set aside the public option in order to develop a set of new provisions with an eye toward satisfying all sides.

“What we’re trying to figure out here, certainly within our caucus and then maybe with Olympia, is: How much government involvement there should be in healthcare, how much private involvement. And there are disagreements,” Schumer said earlier Tuesday.

Flanking Reid at Tuesday evening’s impromptu press conference, however, Schumer cautioned against relying on earlier accounts. “You just know what was being talked about,” Schumer told reporters. “Things changed all the time.”

During the negotiating sessions in a conference room near Reid’s office, Schumer, Rockefeller, Feingold and Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) represented the liberal Democrats while Pryor, Carper and Nelson represented the centrist Democrats, along with Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.) and Blanche Lincoln (Ark.).

Even if the Democratic caucus unites behind whatever the working group devised, they may not be able to win over Snowe, whose support President Barack Obama and other Democrats have intensely courted.

“It’s an expansion of government at a time in which we should be moving in the opposing direction, frankly,” Snowe said.


This story was updated at 9:07 a.m.