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Long Odds: Can The Public Option Really Survive The Senate?

Brian Beutler

(clockwise from top left) Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Sen. Maj. Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), President Barack Obama, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV)

The push to revive the public option suffered a major setback Tuesday when White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said
the popular measure lacks the 50 votes it would need in the Senate to
survive the budget reconciliation process. Gibbs' abruptness caught
Senate Dem leadership by surprise, but what he said isn't really at
odds with their own take. And yet, the number of public proponents of
the plan keeps growing, and it's easy to remember a time when it seemed
pretty clear that there were at least 50 votes for a public option in the Senate.

So what are the public option's chances in the Senate? Ostensibly, they're not very good.

"I think the public option ought to be done, but it's a long shot," said
Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA). Specter is one of 23 signatories to a letter
advocating passing the public option by way of reconciliation, so he
has his eyes wide open. And there's some reason to believe this. The
public option had four ardent Democratic opponents during the long
fight over the Senate bill this past fall and winter: Sens. Ben Nelson
(D-NE), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), and Joe Lieberman

Starting from 59 votes, that means the Democrats have a maximum of
55 votes for a public option now. But there are some members who still
might demur. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) says he's not inclined to support the push. Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) says
he does not support using reconciliation to enact a public option. Sen.
Evan Bayh (D-IN) has been lukewarm at best to the idea of passing anything through reconciliation.

That's 53. Then there are other moderates and vulnerable Dems
who--particularly in the wake of the Massachusetts election--might not
have the stomach for playing hardball with a polarizing measure like
the public option. On this score, think Senators like Jim Webb (D-VA),
Mark Begich (D-AK), Mark Warner (D-VA), Mark Pryor (D-AR), and several
others. Clearly it's conceivable to imagine the final tally being below
the necessary 50.

A top Senate Democratic aide put it to me this way. "We're not
willing to go down the same path I think that we went down in December
where we see things fall apart over one specific provision."

"When you look at the vote tally, it looks like it's close," the
aide went on. "I think that we're still dealing with the--the caucus
has been strained as a result of what happened in the Massachusetts
election, and since then we've also had so many senators say that
they're retiring. We're in a weird spot and I think people are afraid
of rocking the boat."

So what does that mean. For the time being, it means that, lacking
institutional backing from the White House and Senate leadership, the
public option can only win the day if outside groups manage to make it
seem dangerous and inexcusable not to pass it. As Adam Green,
the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committe, told me
"Ultimately we want to get to 50 [signatories]. Our short term goal is
to get to 40 which would build an air of inevitability around this. At
this rate, we're picking up one or two a day, a week from now we should
be approaching 40."

So far, 23 have signed. There are certainly some strong public option advocates who have not
signed on--in part because of the Thursday health care summit. They and
others may join on later. But it's a long way to 50. Still, keep an eye
on that effort.

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