Centrists unsure about Reid's public option
Citing principle and pragmatism, moderate Democrats stay on fence

By Shailagh Murray and Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid's risky decision to bring to the chamber's floor a health-care bill containing a government insurance plan was met with skepticism by moderate Democrats, who said they still do not know whether they could support a public option on a final vote.

The latest challenge to the Nevada Democrat's move came from Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), who told reporters that he was "inclined to support" a procedural motion to bring the measure to the floor. But he remains opposed to a government-run insurance plan in any form -- even with an "opt-out" provision for states that Reid said Monday he will include in the legislation.

"I really want to get to yes," said Lieberman, who caucuses with the Democrats. Unless the public-option language is dropped, however, he said, he probably will align with Republicans to block the measure.

Other moderates said they are undecided on the opt-out plan. "I'm skeptical about what Senator Reid has proposed," said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). Like Lieberman, she opposes a government-run insurance program that would compete with the private sector. But Landrieu gave Reid slightly more reason for optimism, noting that she will "stay open to a principled compromise."

Democrats expect Reid to spend the days ahead attempting to secure commitments from all 60 members of his caucus to allow the Senate to begin debate on the legislation, aimed at lowering health-care costs, reforming insurance practices and expanding coverage to about 30 million uninsured Americans.

Opt-out vs. trigger

But lawmakers said that if moderates' concerns do not prevent the Senate bill from advancing next month, the opt-out provision could be ditched on the floor. Some moderate Democrats are more comfortable with the "trigger" approach that Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) has advocated, saying that a variant of a public plan is more likely to win 60 votes. Under Snowe's approach, a public plan would be available only in states where private companies do not offer policies at broadly affordable rates.

"This is not the end. This is not the beginning of the end. This is the end of the beginning," said Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), a Finance Committee member who has agreed to let debate begin on the measure but wants to make sure that any public option would be run by a nonprofit board, rather than the government, and that it would not be financed by taxpayers.

"The question is, do we have the 60 votes to get to the floor? I hope we do," he said. "To get the bill off the floor? We're not there yet. But we'll have a couple of weeks to work on it and, hopefully, at the end of those weeks, we will."

'We're not there yet'

Reid said he will take things one step at a time. "There are a lot of senators, Democrat and Republicans, who don't like part of what's in this bill," he told reporters. "We're going to see what the final product is. We're not there yet."

He also played down Lieberman's comments. "I'm sure he'll have some interesting things to do in the way of an amendment," Reid said. "But Joe Lieberman is the least of Harry Reid's problems."

Indeed, Reid's more immediate concern may be Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who, unlike Lieberman, has not pledged to vote for debate to begin. Nelson told reporters that he wants to see the bill and a cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office before deciding. Although he has not ruled out supporting a public option, Nelson said he wants to make sure it would not become a "government-run, big-government insurance" company.

In addition to the proposed public plan, Nelson said he is concerned about tax provisions and a separate proposal to create a new public insurance program for long-term care, known as the CLASS Act (short for Community Living Assistance and Support Services). That program would collect premiums in exchange for cash benefits to help cover the cost of home care, adult day programs, and assisted living or nursing homes if a subscriber became disabled.

Gaining ground

The proposal has picked up momentum in recent days as Democratic leaders in the House and Senate cast about for ways to help finance a final health-care package. Because the program would begin taking in premiums immediately but would not start paying benefits until 2016, congressional budget analysts have forecast that it would generate nearly $60 billion over the next 10 years.

But deficit hawks and the American Academy of Actuaries have questioned the design of the program, warning that it could require infusions of taxpayer money to cover benefits after 2019. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) has also expressed concern about the CLASS Act, calling it "a Ponzi scheme of the first order," and vowed to block its inclusion in the Senate bill.

Governors weigh in

Elsewhere, reaction to Reid's opt-out plan began to filter in from governors. New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) said he would opt in. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) said he would opt out. In Virginia, Democratic gubernatorial candidate R. Creigh Deeds came under fire from liberal bloggers for his suggestion in a debate Tuesday that he would consider opting out if the public plan did not prove to be the "best way" to provide Virginians "with the most affordable and quality coverage."

House Democrats, meanwhile, said the Senate leader had given fresh momentum to their push to pass a bill with a public option, although House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) was still rounding up votes Tuesday afternoon.

"Reid was worth 15 votes" in the House, said Rep. Anthony Weiner (N.Y.), explaining that some Democrats who had been wary of voting for a public option when it appeared unlikely to become law are becoming more comfortable with the idea.

Party leaders hope to bring a measure to the House floor by Nov. 6.

Staff writer Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company