Why Won't the Public Option Die?


The public option has been in critical condition all summer, but, like Jason Voorhees, it stubbornly refuses to stay dead. Indeed, in the last week or so, it's been gaining support. And now Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has announced that he's moving forward with a public option that allows individual states to opt out:

Reid announced this afternoon that he plans to push ahead with a public health insurance option that includes an opt-out provision for states—even though he's currently short several votes for passage, according to people close to the situation. 

"It's the fairest way to go," Reid said at a news conference, where he said he'll send the state opt-out plan to the Congressional Budget Office. States would have until 2014 to opt out. 

Reid, who spoke with virtually every member of his 60-member caucus this weekend, currently has between 56 and 57 votes for a proposal to create a national insurance plan but allow states to opt out of it, according to Democratic aides. 

But Reid said he will not send the "trigger" option to the CBO—which endangers the support of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who has not signed on to the opt-out idea. Snowe wants a public insurance option to kick in only if private insurers don't expand coverage fast enough. 

Asked about Snowe's lack of support, Reid said: "We are going to have to move forward on this." 

A month ago, I would have said there's no way any bill with a public option can pass. Now, I'm not so sure. This may simply be a way for Democratic leaders to appease the liberal base. But it also might be a serious attempt at passing a bill with a public option.

Strangely enough, however, one of the most prominent frustrations for Democratic leadership at this point appears to be… the White House. Yes, Obama has consistently had good things to say about the inclusion of the public option (though he's never demanded it be included). But lately, he's waffled about which particular flavor of public option he favors. According to Ezra Klein, that's proven irksome for Senate Democrats trying to figure out what, exactly, the administration supports.

I'm also hearing a lot of irritation from congressional Democrats at the mixed signals being sent by the White House. If the White House wants to advocate for the trigger, fine. If the White House wants to advocate for the public option, fine. But for the White House to host one meeting where they signal that they're uncomfortable with Reid's decision to push the envelope on the public option and then make a big effort to walk that meeting back after the left gets angry is confusing everybody.

…Since the administration is considered the most important actor here, no one knows quite how to structure their strategy so long as the White House refuses to fully show its cards.

The problem with this notion, it seems to me, is that it assumes the White House supports a very particular policy. But as I've pointed out before, what Obama really supports is the passage of a bill—any bill, just so long as it can more or less legitimately be called "health-care reform." Now, it's obviously impossible to know for certain what the White House's thinking is. But my guess is that what he supports isn't so much one version of the public plan or another, but instead, whatever flavor of the public plan is most likely to result in successful passage—and thus, political victory.