Critical Condition

Memo to Reid: Public Statements May Hurt Public Option

Senate Democrats seem determined to continue pushing for the public option, even on the heels of its failure in the Senate Finance Committee. According to Politico, Harry Reid called the public option a “relative term,” adding that “There’s a public option, there’s a public option, and there’s a public option. And we’re going to look at each of them.” Chuck Schumer tried to clarify this with a directional metaphor, saying, “There is not one way to Rome; there are lots of ways to Rome.”

 

Similarly, in the Las Vegas Review Journal, Reid basically guaranteed a public option, saying, “We are going to have a public option before this bill goes to the president’s desk.”

 

This certitude on Reid’s part strikes me as a tactical error, on multiple levels. From a home-state perspective, it probably does not help him in his uphill reelection battle to guarantee something that is unpopular with the public and that he may not be able to accomplish.

 

From the perspective of congressional politics, House Blue Dogs are already nervous about Pelosi bringing forward a government-run plan, and mulitple analysts have said that the House and the Senate lack the votes to pass the public option. However, if only one chamber does manage to pass it, it can become part of the final package through the mechanism of the conference committee — the group that reconciles the different packages passed in the House and in the Senate before they are sent back to the respective chambers for final votes. The Speaker and the Majority Leader typically have the most say in determining the membership of the conference committee, and therefore can help shape the final package in a way that may not reflect the exact version passed on either floor. Reid’s guaranteeing a public option will make both House and Senate Blue Dogs exceedingly nervous about what happens in a conference committee selected by Reid and Pelosi, and would therefore make Blue Dogs wary of a deal that allows the process to move forward without a guarantee that the public option is not added on by the conference committee unless it manages to pass both houses. 

 

I understand, as I discussed yesterday that Democratic leaders face some problems on the left, which fears that a final compromise will not include the vaunted public option, and that Reid may want to tamp down a brewing revolt. But if he knows something the rest of us do not about the plan’s continued political liability, isn’t he better off quietly pursuing that and winning the Left by virtue of securing the public option in a final package? It seems to me he just made his job more difficult.

Tevi Troy Tevi Troy is a presidential historian and former White House aide.

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