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Checkmate: How Joe Lieberman Turned The Public Option Fight On Its Head

Brian Beutler

From left to right Top: Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) Bottom: Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Center: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV. (TPM graphic)

After Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) threw down the gauntlet on the public option,
political observers and liberal critics had no shortage of theories.
Lieberman was rebelling against the liberal base. Lieberman harbors
animosity about 2006. Lieberman is an egotist and wants the spotlight.
Any or all of these theories might be true, but they obscured the more
important, strategic rationale for his decision: With a 60 member
caucus, and little to no Republican support, every Democrat has a
pocket veto of the health care bill. Lieberman's explicit threat to use
his veto was, in effect, checkmate on the public option in the Senate,
and created breathing room for other public option skeptics to create
the bloc that is now negotiating away the public option entirely.

"I think we all came to a similar conclusion. He came to the timing
of his announcement, I think, pretty much on his own," conservative
Democrat Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) told me of Lieberman's threat.

So you all sort of knew where each other stood?

"Yes of course. We continued to talk about it. Each of us had a problem, to one degree or another, with the public option."

I asked, "Did you see it as helpful to your own negotiating on the public option?"

"I don't think it hurt," Nelson said.

Lieberman's move could be used as a case study on the importance of leverage in political negotiations.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), another public option opponent, said
Lieberman had always opposed the public option, and that his
announcement prefigured the current behind-close-doors hand wringing
over the provision.

"This has been going on for a long time, and so our caucus is in the
process of negotiating with ourselves, because we need all 60 of us to
get this done...we knew this day would come and it has come," she told
me and another reporter last week.

For his part, Lieberman himself says he wasn't specifically trying
to turn the public option momentum on its head, and help his centrist
colleagues. But hey! All the better.

"I didn't actually think of it that way, if it had that effect, I'm
not unhappy about it," Lieberman told me. "But I mean the progression
here is that I felt from the beginning...the public option,
government-created, run insurance company was not a good idea."

"As we came closer to the vote on cloture on the motion to proceed,
and Senator Reid called me and he said, 'can you vote for it, I'm gonna
put a public option in it,' and I said, 'you know I'm against the
public option. But I want to start the debate and I want to be for
health care reform.'"

And then there were some, my colleagues, who said, "well
why don't you negotiate with Harry, see if you can get it out now," so
I said, "I don't think he wants to negotiate." I talked to him again,
it was pretty clear that he didn't, so I just thought it was very
important to make that clear, to explain why I wanted to--I would vote
to open debate on the bill--because I want to support health care
reform, but that if there was a public option in it, the only recourse
I to vote against cloture.

Now, according to Nelson the opt-out public option isn't even part
of the ongoing discussions between progressive and conservative
Democrats, who either need Lieberman, or Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), or
both on board for reform to pass. Still in the fold are the trigger
compromise (which has Snowe's support, but not Lieberman's) and a new
proposal to allow consumers to buy non-profit insurance with premiums
negotiated by the federal government.

Conservative Democrats would like this latter plan--which isn't a
public option--to replace the measure in the bill, though Snowe told
reporters yesterday that the two ideas aren't mutually exclusive, and
that it's likely not a replacement for a trigger. On Saturday, she met
with Obama to discuss triggers and other elements of the reform
proposal. She described Obama's position on the triggers as

Senators say they hope to reach a more concrete compromise early this week, perhaps as early as today.

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