Is the Public Option Dead?

5215995After Democrats in a Senate committee yesterday cast the deciding votes to reject a government-sponsored health insurance plan -- not once, but twice -- it appeared the idea may have petered out in Washington.

The Senate Finance Committee's decision to leave the plan out of its health care bill dealt "a crippling blow to the hopes of liberals seeking to expand the federal role in health coverage as a cornerstone of reform," the Washington Post wrote.

Dozens of liberals in Congress, however, are staking their vote for health care reform on the fate of the government plan, or "public option," and their fight for the plan is not up. Democratic leadership could revive the idea at various points in the bill's progress before it reaches President Obama's desk.

Once the Finance Committee approves its health care bill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will have to merge that bill with the more liberal bill from the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, which includes a public option.

"I would hope — assume — that in the bill we send to the floor, it will have a public option," Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the HELP chairman, said Tuesday on a liberal radio show, the Hill newspaper reports. "Then let the minority offer amendments to take it out, and we'll see where the votes are."

President Obama's support for the proposal could be the most important factor in whether or not a public option is included in the merged Senate bill, Politico reports.

Even if it is not in the merged bill, senators could attempt to add it with an amendment on the Senate floor. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of the senators who attempted to insert a public option into the Finance bill Tuesday, has said that may even be easier.

"The Senate floor is more favorable to the public option than the Finance Committee, and [negotiations with the House are] more favorable than the Senate floor," Schumer said before Tuesday's vote.

Directly after the Finance Committee shot down his public option amendment, Schumer sent his supporters an e-mail saying, "This is the opening day of our fight, and I will continue to work to improve the health care reform bill as we take the legislation to the Senate floor."

If a public option is not added on the Senate floor, it could also wind up in the bill once the Congress merges the Senate and the House bills. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday repeated her assurance that the House bill will have a public option. This is another step in the legislative process in which the White House could insert its voice. Moreover, Republicans will have less influence in this step.

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While the public option could be added to a full Senate bill at any of these points, it must also win the votes to pass. Schumer and other senators acknowledged Tuesday that currently there are not 60 senators who would vote in favor a public option. Still, it could be possible for 60 senators to vote to break a filibuster, allowing a bill with a public option to pass with 51 votes on the Senate floor.

"I believe we'll have the 60 votes, now that we have the new senator from Massachusetts, to at least get it on the Senate floor," Harkin said Tuesday. "But once we cross that hurdle, we only need 51 votes for the public option. And I believe there are, comfortably, 51 votes for a public option."

Liberal blogger Chris Bowers wrote Tuesday on Open Left that "the good news is we also learned today there are at least 51 Senate votes in favor of Schumer's public option." Bowers lays out the evidence in support of his claim that the 51 votes are there.

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