Why Reid Shouldn’t Include The Public Option In The Merged Senate Bill

ReidLawrence O’Donnell — who served as Senate Finance Committee staff director during the debate over President Clinton’s failed health care reforms — tells Politico’s Live Pulse that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) shouldn’t merge the Senate Finance Committee’s health bill with the HELP Committee’s far more progressive alternative. Sen. George Mitchell tried that in 1994 and Republicans went line-by-line successfully defeating the bill:

“The basic lesson of ’94 is don’t bother trying to merge those bills,” said Lawrence O’Donnell, who served as Senate Finance Committee staff director during the debate over President Clinton’s failed health care reforms. After Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell merged the finance and labor committee bills, Republicans successfully targeted the more liberal labor committee provisions for deletion and won their removal with 100-0 votes. After about a week of watching the GOP dismantle the bill line-by-line, Mitchell was forced to take it off the floor, essentially killing reform. This go ’round, O’Donnell told Pulse, Reid would be wise to largely ignore the HELP bill and push forward with the more moderate Baucus bill, which includes provisions that President Obama has endorsed.

The most controversial element of this health care reform fight is, of course, the public option and Reid has flip-flopped on his willingness to include the provision in the merged Senate legislation. On Thursday, Reid promised, “We are going to have a public option before this bill goes to the President’s desk,” suggesting that the bill will move to the floor of the Senate with the public plan. Meanwhile, “senior administration officials have been holding private meetings almost daily at the Capitol with senior Democratic staff to discuss ways to include a version of the public plan in the healthcare bill that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) plans to bring to the Senate floor this month.”

But is O’Donnell right? Does it make more sense to exclude the public plan from the Senate bill and add it during Conference? I think it does. The public plan has become a political wedge issue. Republicans have staked their entire opposition to reform on the public plan, effectively shutting out any meaningful discussion about affordability or insurance regulations.

Excluding the public option from the Senate bill could broaden the health care debate. Republicans will complain that they need assurances that a public option won’t be added in during conference. They’ll spend more energy questioning the constitutionality of the individual mandate, the wisdom of eliminating the overpayments to private insurers participating in Medicare Advantage, rationing abortions to women, and ensuring that legal immigrants don’t have access to care.

But these issues lack the broad appeal of the party’s government take-over theme; they force the party to play to its right wing base. By voting against the final bill, conservatives will register their opposition to a very sensible, moderate, package of reforms. Democrats will preserve the integrity of the public option. It will remain intact, away from reformers who seek to transform it into a co-op or a “network” of state-based public plans.

Democrats could then add the public option to the final health care bill during conference, when they reconcile the House and Senate bills. Reid may not have 60 Senate votes for a public plan, but then again, he doesn’t need them. The Senate requires 60 votes to break a filibuster and 50+ votes to pass a bill. During the negotiations, Pelosi will likely argue that she needs a public plan to pass a health care bill in the House and the White House will lean on Reid to include some kind of public option.

With zero chance of securing Republican support, Democrats may find the chutzpah to take advantage of their super majority and pass substantial health care legislation.


The Wall Street Journal reports that Senate Republicans are now “suggesting a ‘pre-conference agreement’ that would instruct conferees not to impose a public option as part of any House-Senate conference agreement. The idea here would be to take the public option off the table completely before any bill leaves the Senate.”

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