Why The White House Is Reluctant To Take A Stronger Stance On Public Option

hoyerpelosioabama2Democrats are privately conceding that passing the President’s health care plan — that is, passing a series of fixes through reconciliation and adopting the Senate health care bill — may prove to be an uphill battle, particularly in the House. Since last year, “three House Democrats who voted for the measure have left Congress and have not been replaced – Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-HI), who resigned to run for governor of Hawaii, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FL), who resigned to run a think tank, and Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), who died from complications following gallbladder surgery.” If the Democrats are to pass reform again in the House, they have to hold together a fragile coalition of moderate and progressive Democrats.

House leaders (with the exception of Majority Whip James Clyburn) haven’t said if they had the 218 votes needed to pass reform and most House Democrats have only — and unenthusiastically — acknowledged Obama’s plan. Today House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) admitted that Democrats may still come up short:

We may not be able to do all. I hope we can do all, a comprehensive piece of legislation that will provide affordable, accessible, quality health care to all Americans,” Hoyer said at his weekly media briefing. “But having said that, if we can’t, then you know me – if you can’t do a whole, doing part is also good. I mean there are a number of things I think we can agree on.”

Hoyer’s uncertainty may be the reason for the White House’s reluctance to support the public option and its attempts to distance itself from the public option letter. The White House has to craft a bill that achieves a delicate balance between progressive and moderate provisions; openly supporting the public plan may tip the scales and alienate important moderate votes. In this environment, urging the repeal of the health insurers’ anti-trust exemption could be seen as somewhat of a compromise. As Press Secretary Robert Gibbs admitted today, “We have seen obviously that though there are some that are supportive of this, there isn’t enough political support in a majority to get [the public option] through.”

As a general matter, I agree with Ezra Klein’s argument that White House should pick a position on the public option and stick to it. But as a practical matter, I think the White House feels that they don’t have the luxury of choosing a side. As the Hoyer-Clyburn disagreement demonstrates, nobody knows where this latest push for reform is heading. Any sudden turns could push the whole effort off the cliff.