Senate Breakdown: Real Numbers on the Public Option

One of the truisms of life in DC is that whenever one party controls the Presidency, the House, and the Senate, it is virtually certain that the last of those three institutions will be the toughest nut to crack in terms of actually getting anything done. Between the filibuster, a variety of other arcane procedural rules, the clubby atmosphere of the chamber, and the six-year term making Senators less concerned about the year-to-year swings of their constituents, the Senate is inherently slower and more resistant to change.


That well-known fact to political insiders has congealed into a hardened nugget of conventional wisdom about the health care fight, which is that there is no way a strong health care reform package, including a public option, can make it out of that body. However, if you really look at reality, at what we actually know, that piece of conventional wisdom is mythology.

The Baucus mark-up only adds to this conventional wisdom, of course. But keep in mind that Senate Finance is almost without question the most conservative committee in either house of Congress right now. Its chair, Max Baucus, is in the top five Democrats in terms of conservatism, and has been historically very close to big business and the ranking Republican on the committee (Grassley). He was happy to cut the deal with Grassley in 2001, against the wishes of the vast majority of the Democratic caucus, for the massive Bush tax cut for the rich that was the main cause of our massive federal deficit over the last few years. Other key committee Democrats like Conrad and Bingaman, of the Gang of Six fame, aren't exactly liberally stalwarts either.

But in a soon-to-be-60-Democrats chamber (when Kennedy is replaced), the most conservative committee does not determine things for the rest of the Senate.

Let's look at the actual facts in terms of passing a bill acceptable to most Democrats:

  • There are between 44 and 50 Senators, depending on how you interpret their public statements, who have said they would support a public option if it was part of the health care package. 
  • There are six other Senators (plus a new Massachusetts Senator, likely to soon be appointed by Deval Patrick once he law re Massachusetts appointments is changed) who have stated no public position on the issue. At least some of these are likely to be open to it with the right amount of arm-twisting by President Obama and Harry Reid. 
  • Depending on how you interpret their various muddled statements, there are three Democratic-caucusing Senators (Lieberman, Landrieu, Nelson) who have stated outright opposition to a public option. 
  • There are no (zero, nada, not a single one) Democratic Senators who have announced that they would join a Republican filibuster in the event Democrats decide not to go to reconciliation to pass a bill. That's not to say it couldn't come to that, but no Democratic Senator has said they would.
  • Reconciliation is a very live option. Many experts in Senate rules think it can be used to pass the financing and public option parts of the health care bill, and Reid has indicated a willingness to use any procedure available to him.

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