By Jeffrey Young - 02/21/10 01:35 AM EST
The public option, the left’s favorite part of healthcare reform, is mounting an unexpected comeback.
The recess week ended up providing liberal activists and their allies on Capitol Hill with a surprise opportunity to breath life into the proposal to create a government-run health insurance plan – a proposal that had been declared all-but-dead two months ago.
With Democrats gearing up to take a final shot at passing healthcare reform via budget reconciliation rules that require only 51 votes for Senate passage, liberals see an opportunity.
Over the course of three days, 18 Democratic senators signed on to Sen. Michael Bennet’s (D-Colo.) Wednesday letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), requesting a floor vote on the public option should the upper chamber consider a healthcare reconciliation bill. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the vice chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, is the only member of the leadership to sign on so far.
Even Reid appears to be on board. A statement issued by his office on Friday indicates that Reid will bring the public option to the Senate floor.
“Sen. Reid has always and continues to support the public option as a way to drive down costs and create competition. That is why he included the measure in his original healthcare proposal,” Reid spokesman Rodell Mollineau said in the statement. “If a decision is made to use reconciliation to advance healthcare, Sen. Reid will work with the White House, the House, and members of his caucus in an effort to craft a public option that can overcome procedural obstacles and secure enough votes.”
Reconciliation seems set to move ahead, based on Reid's comments during an interview on Nevada television Friday. Reid, President Barack Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calf.) and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel settled on the strategy during the previous week, the majority leader indicated.
"I've had many conversations this week with the president, his chief of staff, and Speaker Pelosi," Reid said during an appearance Friday evening on "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" in Nevada.
"We'll do a relatively small bill to take care of what we've already done," Reid said, affirming that Democrats would use the reconciliation process. "We're going to have that done in the next 60 days."
House Democrats favor using reconciliation as the vehicle to hash out the differences between their more liberal bill – which includes a public option – and the Senate’s more centrist measure.
Reid got another letter from House Democrats, penned by Rep. Jared Polis (Colo.), that had attracted 120 signatures by Saturday. “If you're not going to do a 60-vote strategy but instead a 50-plus-one strategy, the public option could very well be a part of this package,” House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) said on MSNBC Thursday.
The Obama administration appears to be ready to give it a go. “If it's part of the decision of the Senate leadership to move forward, absolutely,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said on MSNBC Thursday.
Even if the long shot at reviving the public option fails, liberal lawmakers and Democratic leaders can at least make a more credible case to their base that they tried.
Liberal activists and Democratic allies are disaffected with the party’s handling of the healthcare reform effort. In particular, liberals have loudly complained that Obama and Reid didn’t fight hard enough for the public option and hid behind their quest for 60 votes. House Democrats, too, felt like their wishes were being disregarded by a White House that favored the Senate’s approach to healthcare reform.
Democrats riled the left during the healthcare reform effort in a number of areas beyond the public option, too. Organized labor remained miffed that Obama and the Senate insist on including an excise tax on high-cost insurance plans that unions believe with hurt their members. Pro-abortion-rights groups are angry that both the House and Senate healthcare bills include restrictions on insurance coverage of abortions.
Whether Senate Democrats have the 51 votes they need remains a question to which Reid and the White House won’t give an answer. But the mere fact that Reid is open to resuscitating the public option improves the provisions’ prospects.
Reconciliation not only would allow Democrats to work around Republicans but it lets them disregard the protests of centrist members of the their own caucus. It was the unyielding opposition of centrists like Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) that forced Reid and the Senate’s liberals to set aside their hopes for the public option if they wanted to get the 60 votes they needed to pass their legislation on Christmas Eve.
It’s a risky gambit, however, that could dismay Democrats less conservative than Lieberman and Nelson but less liberal than public option stalwarts like Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), such as Democratic Sens. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Evan Bayh (Ind.).
Michael O'Brien contributed to this article