Public Option Drama Lingers As Finance Committee Meets

Bill Scher

The Senate Finance Committee began its formal drafting of its version of health care reform. And after the initial round of opening statements, we still don’t know where the votes fall on the public option.

We know, of course, that the initial draft from Chairman Max Baucus does not have it. But we also know that two Democrats on the committee — Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Maria Cantwell — have said they would not vote for a bill that lacks a public option. Assuming Sen. Olympia Snowe becomes the lone Republican to support the bill, an increasingly likely scenario, one more Democrat voting no would prevent the bill from clearing committee.

However, while several Senators today made strong arguments for including a public option — including Sens. Robert Menendez, Debbie Stabenow and Chuck Schumer — no one was in a threatening mood.

That is probably because forcing a Finance Committee confrontation could lead to gridlock. Almost certainly Sens. Kent Conrad, Thomas Carper and Snowe would vote against a bill that had an immediate public option, also enough opposition to block a bill.

And gridlock is the worst outcome from the Finance Committee. For the only Senate committee with tax code jurisdiction to come up empty, could grind the process to a halt, leaving us with no reform at all.

As Tim Foley argued yesterday:

…the fate of the public option won’t be sealed in the Senate Finance mark-up. There’s still merging the Finance and the [Senate] HELP [committee] bill (which contains a public option), and then merging the Senate bill with the House bill (which also contains a public option). But we need a bill out of Senate Finance before we can even begin that mud-wrestling.

With the odds low that the right-leaning Finance Committee would come around on the public option, it’s important that we don’t treat the fact that the Finance Committee is the last of five congressional committees to get its work done means that it has the last word on the bill. Jonathan Cohn reminded us last week to remind the public that other committees exist:

The policy that process produces will be much better if the Finance bill ends up looking more like the HELP and House measures. And the surest way to make that happen is to keep reminding everybody that those HELP and House measures exist.

As there is more media attention on Finance Committee than all of the other relevant committees combined, it is still critically important that we help supportive Senators make a loud and compelling public option case possible before a committee vote on such an amendment is taken. Every ounce of effort to win the court of public opinion helps strengthen our position for when these bills get merged.

But whether we win this specific round in committee is less important.

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