Jay Rockefeller's inconvenient honesty on the public option
Sen. Jay Rockefeller did something very strange last night: He was honest. He said, publicly, that he does not support adding the public option to the reconciliation bill. And he's going to pay for it today.
Rockefeller isn't a closet public option opponent. He's not only been an advocate for the public option, but he offered the amendment proposing the strong public option. It like the old joke about the swearing pianist: Does Rockefeller know the public option? He wrote the public option. It was Rockefeller amendment C6.
But Rockefeller amendment C6 failed. So too did Chuck Schumer's amendment to add a weak public option to the Senate bill. And then a coalition of conservative Democrats kept Harry Reid's public option out of the final bill. The public option, it seemed, was dead.
Over the past week, the public option has made an unexpected comeback. As of this morning, 23 Democrats had signed a letter asking Reid to add it into the bill during the reconciliation process. The White House and the Senate leadership both said that if the public option had the votes, they wouldn't oppose its inclusion. But privately, most of the offices were saying the same thing: We don't want to oppose the public option, but we don't want to reopen the public option debate.
But they signed the letter anyway. They described it as a collective action problem: If everyone signed it, Democrats had a serious problem on their hands. But no one individual wanted to oppose it.
It would be fair, at this point, to ask why Democrats would have a problem if they attempted to pass the public option. The public option is popular policy, it's good policy, and it energizes the base. The problem is that it's not popular policy with the handful of conservative House and Senate votes that you need to push this bill over the finish line.
Caucus politics present another dilemma: The public option died due to the opposition of Nelson, Landrieu, Lincoln, Lieberman and a handful of other conservative -- and vulnerable -- Democrats. Reid cut a deal with them, and they signed onto the final product. For many, that was a big political risk. The price was letting them say they killed the public option. Bringing it back to the bill will mean they voted for a bill that ended up including something they'd promised their constituents they'd killed. Cross them on this and you've lost their trust -- and thus their votes -- in the future.
Then there's the larger political strategy that the White House, and the Democrats, seem to have settled on. The idea, which is centered around Thursday's summit, is to look more bipartisan than the obstructionist Republicans. Resuscitating the most controversial part of the bill does not fit with that plan.
I'm not defending these arguments. I don't think conservative Democrats will pick up even a single vote if the final plan doesn't include a public option, while I think they'll probably gain a few if their base feels like they won something big this year. Nor have I seen any evidence that Americans will reward Democrats for being bipartisan if Republicans refuse to cooperate with the strategy. But that's the thinking.
Amid all of this, you have a lot of Senate Democrats getting the base's hopes up because, well, it's good personal politics to sign the letter, even if they think actually bringing the public option back into play would be bad legislative politics. I've had multiple offices tell me that they think this whole public option resurgence makes passage of the bill less likely, even as their bosses are being touted as supporters of the public option strategy.
The likely outcome of that will be another crushing and confusing letdown for the party's most ardent supporters, which leads them to turn on the bill and its authors, and makes final passage of health-care reform that much less likely.
Rockefeller will pay for his comment yesterday, because he said publicly what the other offices are saying privately: He supports the public option, but think it's too dangerous to attempt in a reconciliation meant to close out a fragile and uncertain process. The left is going to hammer him for that, and understandably so. I wouldn't be surprised to see him walk it back. But the truth is he's treating liberals with a lot more respect than the offices that are telling them what they want to hear but have no intention of actually passing a public option.
photo credit: Akira Hakuta/The Washington Post.