PEEK

Harry Reid Announces Senate Health Bill With Public Option

In a striking announcement, the Senate majority leader says he has the votes to stop a filibuster against a public option; gives up on Snowe.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, long a target for the ire of progressives given his reluctance to express support for including a public health-insurance plan in the Senate's health-care reform bill, today surprised reporters with his announcement that the final Senate bill will contain a public option.

States will be permitted to opt out of the plan via their state's legislative process -- an escape clause, if you will, for a handful of Democratic senators who are less than keen on the notion of a public plan.

"I believe that a public option can achieve the goal of bringing meaningful reform to our broken system," Reid said, "will protect consumers, keep insurers honest, and ensure competition. And that's why we intend to include it in the bill will be submitted to the Senate."

Reid has been under relentless pressure from progressives to craft a bill containing a public insurance plan just as he gears up for what is expected to be a tough re-election campaign for 2010. Just last week, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee launched a television ad targeting Reid that asked, "Is Harry Reid strong enough?"

Most striking is that Reid's decision to include the public option assures the lack of a single Republican vote for health-care reform in the Senate, despite months of wrangling to get at least one -- that of Maine's Olympia Snowe.  So desirous was the president of having a bipartisan bill, the White House seemed ready to cave to Snowe's proposal for a "trigger" -- a sort of imaginary public option, one that would only go into effect after private insurers had a few years to reduce costs on their own. Had the insurers failed to meet a benchmark for cost reduction, then a public plan would be designed, built and implemented -- a scheme that critics, such as Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., see at best as a delaying tactic.

Just hours before Reid's press conference, the White House signaled weakness on the public option in a speech by Christina Romer, chair of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, who expressed a personal belief in the public option as a means of cost containment, but used qualified language to say so.

In her prepared remarks to journalists and policymakers at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., Romer cited a public option as a "potentially important source of cost containment." Romer was more definite about the benefits of two other measures for holding down costs: Medicare cost reform, and an excise tax, such as that proposed by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., on high-cost private plans -- a concept opposed by the AFL-CIO.

Asked by AlterNet why her enthusiasm for the cost-savings offered by a public option was limited to a maybe, Romer replied, "I was certainly planning to present all three of these [proposals] as important." But the broader agreement among economists, she said, was for "something like the Kerry proposal."

Up until today, the White House had signaled a willingness to accept Snowe's trigger plan. But when Sam Stein of The Huffington Post asked about any potential cost containment offered by a trigger plan, Romer said she had no evidence of such -- a harbinger, perhaps, of the announcement later in the day that the Democrats would move forward without the Maine Republican.

After days of meetings, Reid explained, he and the two senators who produced the legislation from their respective committees -- Chris Dodd, D-Conn., of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Finance Committee -- met with White House staff to hammer out a final proposal that Reid described as a "melding" of the two committees' bills. Though tight-lipped about the result, Reid did let on that the final bill would retain the provision for a health-care co-op system contained in the Finance Committee bill.

Next up, the "melded" bill will go to the Congressional Budget Office for cost analysis of its various provisions.  Any final tweaks will come after the CBO has scored the proposed legislation. The bill will then enter the legislative process, at which point Republicans will likely try to launch a filibuster stop the bill from coming to the Senate floor for a vote.

Reid expressed confidence that he had the 60 votes he would need to stop a promised GOP filibuster of the bill -- a legislative maneuver that, if successful, would keep health-care reform legislation for moving to the Senate floor for a vote by the full body. That likely means that Reid has exacted promises out of conservative Democrats who oppose the public option, such as Mary Landrieu, La.; Blanche Lincoln, Ark.; Ben Nelson, Neb., and the independent Joe Lieberman, Conn., that although they're unlikely to vote for the final bill because of Reid's opt-out plan, they won't side with Republicans in preventing the bill from coming to the floor.

One reporter asked if the Senate Majority Leader had asked the White House to call any of the senators in question. "I haven't asked them to make any calls," Reid said. "It hasn't been necessary at this point."

Looks like we just may get health-care reform, after all.

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.
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