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Road Map: Public Likes a Public Plan; Senate Not So Sure

With Members heading home for the recess to talk up their efforts on health care reform, a poll showing more than 70 percent of Americans back a government-run health insurance plan has given Democrats a powerful weapon to take with them.

Too bad Senate Democrats won’t be able to use it.

While House Democrats are gleefully touting the popularity of the public insurance option that is the centerpiece of their recently released bill draft, the Senate has been slogging ahead on two different paths — the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is expected to produce a public insurance option while the Finance Committee is conducting a bipartisan experiment to create independent, nonprofit health care insurance cooperatives.

With the end result in both panels uncertain and a potentially awkward merger between the two bills looming for July, Senate Democrats are likely to have a hard time touting what so many of them want — a government-run insurance plan its supporters say would help lower health care costs across the board.

That’s because you can’t tout something that you’re not sure you’ll be able to draft or pass.

Though the HELP bill has a section reserved for a public plan, the language has yet to be finalized — despite the fact that the committee markup began last week. Still, Chairman Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) staff did try to take advantage of the poll Monday with a news release.

Finance, meanwhile, is pursuing the bipartisan option that few Democrats seem to want. And only a handful of Republicans appear to be willing to even entertain the idea of creating a government-backed co-op.

Senate Democrats acknowledged that the focus is not on a final bill right now, but merely getting both measures out of committee so more negotiations can take place on how to merge them into something sensible.

“What matters is getting a bill to the president that he can sign this fall — an arbitrary June date doesn’t matter at all and it only matters for inside-the-Beltway squawkers who think the world is caving in every three minutes,” said one senior Senate Democratic source. “What matters is whether the Finance Committee can come up with a bill that can pass. ... It’s the bill and the support that matter, not this constructed concern about recess.”

But with the release of the New York Times/CBS poll, one influential Democrat has began to push back against the sense of inevitability that Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has tried to create around his relentless pursuit of the bipartisan co-op plan.

“When we began talking about reaching an agreement on the co-op idea, the goal was to work with Republicans on an alternative to a public plan that could achieve the same objectives,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement provided by his office on Monday.

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