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Key Liberals Willing to Bargain

But while Progressive leaders have staked their caucus’s reputation on getting a strong public insurance option, vowing again and again that they will not cave, the rank and file aren’t necessarily holding the line.

“We’re the caucus that least marches to a unified drummer — that’s not what we do,” Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) said. “I’m serious about increasing access and quality, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a grand slam home run. I’ll take a ground-rule double if that’s what it takes. I’m happy to compromise if that’s what it takes. But compromise is compromise — it’s not rolling over.”

The question for liberals is what they have meant when insisting on a “robust” public insurance option, something Obama himself put to the caucus leaders on the Friday conference call, according to the aide. Progressive leaders have qualified it as a plan linked to Medicare rates and implemented without a trigger.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), an Obama ally, backed up that take in a Thursday statement declaring she would support “nothing short of a robust public health insurance plan upon implementation, no triggers.”  

Likewise, Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), a signatory to the Progressive Caucus’ letters though not a member of the group, said that a trigger would “make it less likely that we have a robust public alternative” and that he would oppose it.

But the new openness by some liberals to at least entertain a trigger suggests it’s a movable standard.

“That’s why we used words like ‘robust’ — because it’s in the eye of the beholder,” Capuano said. “We’ll make our independent judgments.”

If lawmakers agree to embrace the public option as a backstop, liberals want it to be a hair-trigger, more likely to be pulled than not.

Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), a Progressive Caucus member, said he did not support the approach but did not foreclose on it, either. “It depends on how strong that trigger is,” he said. Farr said he has seen triggers implemented effectively in California. “Triggers work, but they’ve got to be really clear as to how they operate,” he said. “The only way I could see it getting progressive votes is by making sure the public option is strong and goes into operation.”

Either way, liberals interviewed for this story said they welcomed Obama’s decision to step into the thick of the debate and looked forward to hearing some clarity from him about his preferred approach. “Let him be straight with us,” Pascrell said.

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