Road Map: Mystery Surrounds Compromise on the Public Option

Posted November 30, 2009 at 6:31pm

There’s an air of mystery surrounding just who among Senate Democrats is going to broker a critical compromise on the public insurance option.

[IMGCAP(1)]Few besides Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) appear willing to have their name attached to whatever messy accord the Senate will have to agree to in order to get the health care reform bill off the floor, even as many are working behind the scenes to find the legislative sweet spot.

When asked how he was going to secure a filibuster-proof 60 votes to end debate on his $848 billion measure and move to final passage this year, Reid earlier this month named a trio of Senators — Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.) — who were working on a deal, but not all three appeared pleased with being identified.

“I welcome Sen. Schumer, Landrieu and Carper, whoSen. Landrieu said that they’re working together to find a public option that’s acceptable to all Democrats,— Reid said after the Senate’s crucial Nov. 21 vote to bring the health care bill to the floor. Reid needed and got all 60 Members of the Democratic Conference to break an attempted GOP filibuster, but at least four of his centrists have made it known they would block the bill from passing the chamber if it continues to include a public insurance option with a state opt-out provision.

Since Reid opened the door to another possible compromise on the public option, Landrieu and Schumer — who has been credited with convincing Reid to adopt the public option that is currently in the bill — said that though they are interested in an agreement, they essentially are working on the periphery.

“Leading up to Saturday’s vote, some Senators expressed a desire to discuss the public option currently in the Senate bill. Of course, Sen. Schumer did not rule that out,— Schumer spokesman Brian Fallon said last week. “But no such talks have yet taken place, and there is not any compromise at hand beyond what Leader Reid has already inserted into the bill. Sen. Schumer remains a strong proponent of the opt-out, level playing field public option.—

Landrieu also took a step back from Reid’s comments. In a statement, her office said, “Sen. Landrieu will be working with Sens. Schumer and Carper, and any other colleague who wants to find a principled compromise to move this bill forward. She has been meeting regularly with Senate moderates and Leadership to find common ground, and those meetings will continue now that the bill is on the Senate floor.—

Despite Schumer’s public statements, however, Reid has asked his No. 3 lieutenant to explore possible compromises, and Democratic sources said Schumer is privately having talks with various Senators to gauge their positions. Democrats also said Reid has tasked a number of different people with working out various deals; the names of those Senators are being closely held, however, because “Reid is serious about getting this done,— one source said.

But as of now, Reid and Carper seem to be the only ones willing to have their fingerprints publicly on any effort to negotiate an agreement that can pass the Senate — possibly before Christmas.

Reid, who faces a tough re-election back home next year, appeared to be ignoring the political peril that faces him in Nevada when he took control of the bill in October and merged two competing measures passed by the Finance and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions panels.

Carper hasn’t shied away from his role as a potential dealmaker either, appearing last week on MSNBC to talk up his compromise proposals and his outreach to both moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), both of whom are likely to filibuster a bill with a public option.

But whom Carper is actually working with is unclear, since no one seems to want to cop to it as of yet.

Indeed, some aides suggested that the fear of igniting liberal ire could be the driving force behind the reluctance of some Senators — and the White House — to be tied to any potential compromise that would satisfy centrists in the Senate at the expense of the party’s left flank.

After all, a group of liberal Senators met with Reid a week before the Nov. 21 vote to urge the leader to stick by the public option regardless of centrist nervousness. But the first thing Reid did when he greeted reporters after the vote was indicate that a compromise was not only necessary but also in the works.

And despite Reid’s push for another compromise with moderates, liberal Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) indicated last week that liberals have compromised enough already.

“I think, in the end, I don’t want four Democratic Senators dictating to the other 56 of us and to the country, when the public option has this much support, that it’s not going to be in it,— Brown said Nov. 22 on CNN.

Like Landrieu, other wavering centrists, such as Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), have been trying to avoid being associated with any part of the bill that even smells like a public option, largely because of the perceived political pitfalls they may face in their conservative-leaning home states. And while they’ve said they have been attending meetings with other moderates, both have repeatedly insisted they are not brokering any deals.