Posted by: Jeff | October 26, 2009

Gaming Harry Reid’s Opt-Out Gauntlet

Well waddaya know? Give Harry Reid this week’s trophy for legislative brass balls.

The Senator just finished a press conference confirming that a public option will be included in the health care reform bill he’s sending to the floor of the Senate. Specifically, this will be the “opt-out” form of the public option, in which the government-run health insurance plan will be available nationally, but individual states will have until 2014 to choose not to have the plan available on their exchanges. Of all the politically possible compromises on the table (others included Olympia Snowe’s “trigger” option and the possibility of creating state-level public options) this was certainly the most leftwing and aggressive.

A few twists: Reid will apparently be sending several different iterations of the bill to the CBO for scoring, which suggests the content of the bill may yet shift depending on what the CBO comes up with, and Reid is keeping his options open. Snowe has made her opposition to anything more aggressive than the trigger well known, so it may be that her vote can no longer be counted on. (Though after all the time, energy and political legitimacy she’s invested in this process, I’d be a little surprised if she really does jump ship over this.) And the White House’s support for the opt-out public option has been tepid at best, though they’ve not moved to oppose Reid on this either.

That last point is striking. Reid has not made many friends amongst the Democrats’ liberal wing, as the left generally views him as too cautious and accommodating on health care reform. So the fact that even Reid is now being more aggressive on the public option than the Obama Administration is a bit eyebrow raising.

But I have difficulty buying the analysis of either Chris Hayes or Howard Fineman. The White House is not so stupid or naive to let this become a matter of bipartisanship for the sake of bipartisanship. They want Snowe’s vote because it gives them breathing room. My guess is they’re just skeptical that Reid can clear the 60-vote hump necessary to shut down a filibuster as long as the opt-out public option is in the bill.

So I think Jonathan Cohn is right. Team Obama wants a public option, but they want a bill a whole lot more. Say what you will about this guys, they’re certainly a bunch of coldly rational, clear-eyed political surgeons. If they’re hesitant to give a full-throated endorsement to Reid’s choice of paths here, I think that says something. Health care reform may be headed for a very risky gambit.

For myself, I’m on record as thinking the importance of the public option has been mightily overblown by the left. I’m much more interested in seeing how the insurance exchanges shape up in the Senate’s bill: How many Americans will be eligible to enroll, will Baucus’ framework for certain plans to be available at the national level remain and, probably most importantly, how will Ron Wyden’s Free Choice Amendment fair? All that said, the public option is certainly a bellwether for the ability of the Democrats in general, and the Senate Democrats in particular, to hang together while taking substantive political risks. So, keeping in mind my aforementioned caveats, color me impressed.

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