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Does Obama Like Olympia Snowe a Little Too Much?

5 years ago
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Is Barack Obama truly gaga over Olympia Snowe? Washington -- and the rest of the nation -- might find out this week.

The latest shift in the ever-changing debate on health care reform is nudging the president into a position where he might have to choose between Snowe, his favorite Republican senator, and his own party.

Snowe appears to be the only GOPer in the entire Senate who may give Obama what he desires: bipartisan cover for health care reform. She was the sole Republican on the Senate finance committee to vote for the legislation. But her price for many Democrats is high: no public option. She has repeatedly said she cannot support a measure that would set up a government plan to compete with insurance companies (in order to keep the price of health insurance down). Snowe has proposed a trigger that would supposedly establish some sort of public option if insurance companies don't change their oligopolistic ways. But the key policy wonks who cheer a public option say Snow's trigger is connected to a gun that would shoot duds--if it's ever fired.

To keep Snowe happy, the White House--which technically supports the public option--is not pushing it. In fact, one Beltway advocate for the public option tells me that White House aides are lobbying Senate majority leader Harry Reid to keep the public option out of the version of the bill he hopes to finish crafting this week. The trouble is, most Democrats really want it in. And the momentum behind the public option--which draws majority support in recent polls--has been growing on Capitol Hill.

What a plot twist. This past summer, when all those Tea Party folks were screaming about "death panels" and a government takeover of the health care system (much of which is already run by the government; see Medicare), it did look as if the public option--and perhaps the entire bill--was about to flat-line. But now the prospects for both are a lot healthier. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she is close to assembling a majority in the House for a reform bill that includes a strong public option. In the Senate, Democrats Chuck Schumer and Jay Rockefeller--a scrappy New Yorker and a far-from-charismatic wealthy scion, truly an odd couple--have been gaining ground, as they've pressed for a public option. In recent days, a few moderate Dems who once scoffed at a government insurance plan have signaled that they might accept something resembling a public option. To appease them, Reid is weighing a public option that states could opt out of. (Snowe says she doesn't support such a plan.)

Reid doesn't need all of the 60 senators who caucus with the Democrats to embrace the public option. He only needs all of them to vote against the inevitable GOP-led filibuster. Afterward, those few Democrats skeptical of the public option would be free to vote against the actual legislation. But at that point, a health care bill with a government plan would likely pass with a simple 50-plus majority. (There's still the outside possibility that Reid will deploy a rarely-used procedural short-cut known as "reconciliation," which allows certain legislation to bypass filibusters.)

The question for Reid and the White House is, how important is Snowe? They could come up with different answers. If Reid can indeed keep his 60 votes together on a procedural vote (blocking the filibuster), he can tell Snowe to take a hike. But Obama may still want her Republican cred attached to the final bill. That would place him and Reid dramatically at odds. Complicating matters is Reid's political trouble back home in Nevada, where he is up for reelection next year. He may need the president's help there. So he might not want to tick off the White House. Then again, one local poll indicated that independent and Democratic Nevadans--whose votes he will need -- believe Reid is not sufficiently progressive. That means he may be in more peril if he abandons the public option.

Meanwhile, progressive policy advocates in Washington are becoming increasingly frustrated with the White House's fixation on Snowe. They see Reid moving closer to a bill with a public option--and the White House caring more about expropriating Snowe's brand than producing good policy.

Will Obama have to decide between a bill that gets one Senate Republican vote and a bill that includes the public option? This could be the week he confronts that tough call. To make it easy for themselves, Obama and his aides might even be rooting for Reid to fall short of a filibuster-busting majority. After all, if they are yearning for legislation that they can hail as bipartisan--even if it's as barely bipartisan as possible -- failure (Reid's, that is) may be their best option.

UPDATE: On Monday afternoon, Reid announced that his bill will include a public option with an opt-out for states.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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