Capitol Hill Bureau Chief
Moments before Harry Reid went to the microphones Tuesday to discuss his meeting with Democratic senators about his version of the public insurance option, a Capitol Hill newspaper launched a breaking news update into the in-boxes of reporters, senators and staff throughout the Capitol:
"Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) says he will join a Republican filibuster against the Senate Democrats' health care reform bill unless the public option is removed."
The din of conversation outside the meeting room grew from a murmur to a low rumble as reporters waited for the Independent from Connecticut to emerge from the caucus to ask why he was playing spoiler yet again. "Did you hear about Lieberman?" said one journalist. "Typical Lieberman." said another.
Once in front of the assembled reporters, Reid quickly took a question about Lieberman. "I have the greatest confidence in Joe Lieberman's ability as a legislator," Reid said. "And he will work with us when this gets on the floor, and I'm sure he'll have some interesting things to do in the way of an amendment. But Joe Lieberman is the least of Harry Reid's problems."
Really? What did Reid know that the reporters did not?
First, he knew that Lieberman would not filibuster debate on the health care bill, as the e-mail blast suggested. Reid had already spoken with Lieberman, who told the majority leader he wanted to debate the bill, but would oppose a measure with a public option, even one that gives states the flexibility to opt-out.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, the lone Republican to support health care reform in committee, raised the same objection Monday, as did Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark), who told the Arkansas Farm Bureau that she opposes a government-run health insurance option. "Creating another government-funded option is not where we're going," she said, according to the AP.
Second, Reid also knew that unlike Lieberman, Snowe and Lincoln, at least two Democrats remained noncommittal on even debating the measure on the Senate floor.
Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska said Tuesday he wants to wait to read the proposal before committing to move debate forward, while Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana told The Hill, "I want to see what the bill has to say and if I think they have major substantive flaws in it, they may have to be corrected before we go to the floor for debate."
After Reid's initial answer about Lieberman, the majority leader told a story about working with the senator in 2005 to forge a deal with Republicans to avoid "the nuclear option." That was the name given to a power play by the Republicans (then in the majority) to strip Democrats of their ability to mount a filibuster. Reid said, "I called Joe Lieberman to my office and said, 'Joe, I want you to join -- I want you to join the enemy and get us out of this deal.' And he did."
Like Reid said, without Bayh and Nelson on board up front, Lieberman is the very least of his problems.