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).

ADVERTISEMENT

“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 LandrieuMary Loretta LandrieuCongress needs to work to combat the poverty, abuse and neglect issues that children face Dems wrestle over how to vote on ‘Green New Deal’ Lobbying world MORE (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 DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinTensions rise in Senate's legislative 'graveyard' Senators voice support for Iran protesters but stop short of taking action GOP divided over impeachment trial strategy MORE (D-Ill.) said that the public option and abortion funding remain the two major sticking points among Democrats. “What [Majority Leader] Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidHarry Reid: Early voting states Iowa, New Hampshire 'not representative of the country anymore' The Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary Bottom Line MORE [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 RockefellerJohn (Jay) Davison RockefellerBottom Line World Health Day: It's time to fight preventable disease Lobbying World MORE (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 CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperLobbying World Overnight Energy: BLM staff face choice of relocation or resignation as agency moves | Trump says he's 'very much into climate' | EPA rule would expand limits on scientific studies Democrats give Warren's 'Medicare for All' plan the cold shoulder MORE (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 BegichMark Peter BegichAlaska political mess has legislators divided over meeting place Former GOP chairman Royce joins lobbying shop Lobbying world MORE (D-Alaska), Kay HaganKay Ruthven HaganDemocrats will win back the Senate majority in 2020, all thanks to President Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Better Medicare Alliance - Dems shift strategy on impeachment vote Former North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan dies at 66 MORE (D-N.C.) and Mark PryorMark Lunsford PryorTom Cotton's only Democratic rival quits race in Arkansas Medicaid rollback looms for GOP senators in 2020 Cotton pitches anti-Democrat message to SC delegation MORE (D-Ark.). Earlier Thursday, Landrieu, Lincoln and Nelson met with Democratic Sens. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellSenators grill safety regulator over self-driving cars Hillicon Valley: Commerce extends Huawei waiver | Senate Dems unveil privacy bill priorities | House funding measure extends surveillance program | Trump to tour Apple factory | GOP bill would restrict US data going to China Senate Democrats unveil priorities for federal privacy bill MORE (Wash.) and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley: Google to limit political ad targeting | Senators scrutinize self-driving car safety | Trump to 'look at' Apple tariff exemption | Progressive lawmakers call for surveillance reforms | House panel advances telecom bills Democrats raise privacy concerns over Amazon home security system Trump tax breaks for low-income neighborhoods draw scrutiny MORE (Ore.).

Even as Senate Democratic leaders, White House officials and individual senators such as Carper and Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTensions rise in Senate's legislative 'graveyard' 2020 Republicans accuse Schumer of snubbing legislation Schumer: Leadership trying to work out competing surprise medical bill measures MORE (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 BrownSherrod Campbell BrownHillicon Valley: Commerce extends Huawei waiver | Senate Dems unveil privacy bill priorities | House funding measure extends surveillance program | Trump to tour Apple factory | GOP bill would restrict US data going to China Senate Democrats unveil priorities for federal privacy bill On The Money: Trump asks Supreme Court to block Dem subpoena for financial records | Kudlow 'very optimistic' for new NAFTA deal | House passes Ex-Im Bank bill opposed by Trump, McConnell MORE (D-Ohio) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE (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.