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Congress tiring of reading the White House's tea leaves on the public option


I like these little morning wrap-ups from Politico's Pulse:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid plans to send several versions of a bill to CBO today and is expected to present them to his caucus tomorrow. Reid knows what he’d like to do, but will wait until today to make final decisions. If he goes with the opt-out, Senate Dems are concerned that the 60 votes needed to clear the first procedural hurdle wouldn’t necessarily translate later to 60 votes in favor of the bill. In the House, Democratic leaders worked their rank and file by phone over the weekend, but have not made any final decisions. Democratic leaders will likely meet Tuesday morning and are expected to hold off on any announcements until after their noon caucus meeting. There's also a chance that Democrats will untie the abortion knot this week. Rep. Lois Capps has been working with freshmen and sophomores to develop language they can endorse. As of now, a compromise rests more with these junior members than it does with pro-life Dems like Rep. Bart Stupak. And last night, the White House posted a blog item to tamp down any talk of a split between Obama and Reid, a move aimed at reassuring liberals worried that Obama favors the more conservative trigger over Reid’s opt-out.

I'm also hearing a lot of irritation from congressional Democrats at the mixed signals being sent by the White House. If the White House wants to advocate for the trigger, fine. If the White House wants to advocate for the public option, fine. But for the White House to host one meeting where they signal that they're uncomfortable with Reid's decision to push the envelope on the public option and then make a big effort to walk that meeting back after the left gets angry is confusing everybody.

No one wants to be left in the cold here. If the public option is going to pass, plenty of people want to be seen as its champions. If it's going to fail, others want to be out ahead of that failure. Politicians need to know whether to begin managing the disappointment of their base or amping up their expectations. But since the administration is considered the most important actor here, no one knows quite how to structure their strategy so long as the White House refuses to fully show its cards.

Update: Looks like Jon Cohn is hearing the same thing.

Photo credit: Susan Walsh/AP.

By Ezra Klein  |  October 26, 2009; 9:49 AM ET
Categories:  Health Reform  
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Next: The Massachusetts reforms are working


I don't get the irritation from the Congressional Democrats. The White House has been clear. It prefers a public option but also knows the votes may not be there for it and is more interested that the next best thing passes (in their mind a trigger) as opposed to nothing passing and the status quo remain.

Also if they could have some semblance of bipartisanship (even with just one Republican vote) when the 2010 elections come around and the economy is still in the tank, taxes are higher, unemployment is still high Republican's can't say "Look at this healthcare mess, Democrats wasted so much time on it, nothing got done for years in the future, you're still unemployed, you're still uninsurable you're still in a mess. If a Republican was in office at least they'd be working to get jobs". I'm not saying that's what would have happen but it is how Republican's WILL campaign in 2010 and 2012 and the White House is smart enough to realize that.

Posted by: visionbrkr | October 26, 2009 10:04 AM | Report abuse

Democrats I swear to god can be just like the palestinians sometimes. Congress is article 1 of the US Constitution, their job is to write the laws for heaven's sake. Its pretty clear the White House is for whatever version of health care reform that can get to the president's desk. Why are they constantly in need of hand holding?

The President isnt, and shouldnt be, the Senate Majority Leader or House Speaker. These people all have phones, and can call up the various members, do a whip count, negotiate and get rolling. Lets go!!

Posted by: zeppelin003 | October 26, 2009 10:06 AM | Report abuse

Re: the abortion question. Why not do an opt-in there, kinda like checking $1 to presidential campaigns on your IRS form.

Let those who what their tax dollars support abortion costs to check that box. Those oppose leave it blank.

I think there would be plenty of funding for those using any public health insurance --Medicaid or whatever-- to cover abortions.

Posted by: jshafham | October 26, 2009 10:12 AM | Report abuse

jshafham: Good idea, but people probably fight over who has to check the box and who gets to leave it blank. Personally I don't want to think about if I don't have to.

Regarding the public option, best nobody get too amped up because this poor thing is going to be like a little brother in the marketplace. It's competitors are going to have to try to keep it afloat.

Posted by: bmull | October 26, 2009 10:49 AM | Report abuse

I also want to make sure everybody knows that I believe the purpose of Obama's leak was to kill the robust public option in the House and I'm still mad about it.

Posted by: bmull | October 26, 2009 11:05 AM | Report abuse

Congressional behavior, actually really just the Senate, on this issue reminds me of something I should say far more often: it's time to abolish the Senate. Does anyone actually disagree that if this whole business were up to Speaker Pelosi and President Obama that we'd have gotten an even better bill months ago? Some will say this is short-sighted: what about when government is in the hands of the opposition? Well I'm willing to bet that our ideas are just more popular and over time will tend to win out. It'll be a bumpier ride to a more perfect Union without the Senate, but I'd be willing to bet that it sure would be faster.

Posted by: reader44 | October 26, 2009 11:20 AM | Report abuse


wow you're asking for basically a quasi-dictatorship in this country, huh? So when the populus is against you how's the lack of a check and balance going to work for you then?

Heck why don't we give total control over to the progressives that make up what 10% of the country? Let's just do that because they think their way is the best way. Keyboards are scary in some people's hands.

Posted by: visionbrkr | October 26, 2009 11:26 AM | Report abuse

Someone needs to get in a room with our bystander president and tell him to fish or cut bait. Pretending to be above it all and that the president of the United States has nothing to do with the legislative process on a matter this important is on a par with convincing us to believe in Santa Claus and fairy dust. It's moronic and insulting. Someone also needs to tell him that this is how our media starts picking up and propagating the meme that he's irresolute and wants to be all things to all people. That won't do him any good in 2010 or 2012, and you would think an administration whose instinct for self-preservation is its only real bedrock principle would understand that.

Posted by: redscott | October 26, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Wait, what?? They're worried that it might not get 60 votes on the floor? What solar system are they living in? That was never in the cards and totally unecessary. Please go away Senator Reid.

Posted by: andrewlong | October 26, 2009 11:47 AM | Report abuse

visionbrkr, either Ezra or MattY have made similar arguments in the past. Whether you get rid of the Senate entirely or enact some other type of major reform, it's clear that it's nearly impossible to pass large pieces of legislation. That's not to say that simple majorities should find it easy to pass sweeping reforms, but it also shouldn't be as impossible as it's proven in the last, what, thirty years? The Senate works fine if you've got a relatively low degree of partisanship, but when nearly every issue is a party-line vote and getting enough seats to pass legislation over a party-line vote requires a nearly impossible to obtain and maintain majority, there's something broken in the system.

Again, I can think of several ways you could reform the system to make it work a bit better, but I think the underlying frustration reader44 is voicing is perfectly understandable.

Posted by: MosBen | October 26, 2009 12:07 PM | Report abuse

redscott, if a bill with a strong public option gets to the floor and the votes aren't there, the bill is screwed. It'll be set back months if not dead outright. That the Administration wants to make sure that they get a bill on the President's desk is not some crazy inability to commit. As Jon Cohn argues, it's not inconsistent for the Administration to say that they're in favor of a strong public option but will support whatever the leadership can pass.

Posted by: MosBen | October 26, 2009 12:11 PM | Report abuse


I agree that it needs to be less difficult to get important legislation done but I think reader44 goes too far (although he/she may have been being facetious). I'd be fine moving to simple majorities and getting rid of the filibuster or restrain its use. But again those on the left that want to restrain it need to realize they can't change the rules (ala Mass. Senate) when the legislation isn't something that their side favors. Rules apply for a reason.

Posted by: visionbrkr | October 26, 2009 12:28 PM | Report abuse

If we pass a crap bill that won't lower costs and make health care significantly more affordable at the same time that we force millions of people to buy the costly insurance, that's bad for them and ultimately bad for the political party seen to be responsible for it. The insurance companies will love a bill that gives them millions of new customers to gouge without any significant competitive pressure from a non-profit alternative that doesn't spend 30% on overhead so that they can deny claims. The rest of us won't love that result, and one assumes that people who feel screwed will vote on that basis.

Posted by: redscott | October 26, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

I've been writing and thinking about forms of health insurance in great detail for a long while, so I decided to rank various Public Options by order of overall quality:

I think the white house isn't doing so bad at its real goal, as I see it: to help evolve peoples' thinking over time. Its the process itself they are focused on.

Maybe Obama is so smart he knows that the first pass or three at what is the best overall plan isn't as good as it can't get with more time and thought. I think Obama is quite willing to get a Massachusetts like result (universal coverage only), and then work on costs more later, in another session.

But...people have been thinking, and it is adding up.

Posted by: HalHorvath | October 26, 2009 12:59 PM | Report abuse


The White House doesn't want this to be Obamacare. Down the road that would be disastrous.

The White House wants Congress to take the lead here. Obama has repeatedly said that he thinks a public option would be the best choice. That's sufficient.

This isn't a matter of the White House sending signals so that Congressmen can be sure they're on the winning side. This isn't a political game--too much is at stake for the country as a whole.

Yesterday, I posted about why the public optoin is not about politics--and why Obama doesn't want to (and shouldn't) take the lead (see

Posted by: mahar1 | October 26, 2009 1:10 PM | Report abuse

"If the public option is going to pass, plenty of people want to be seen as its champions. If it's going to fail, others want to be out ahead of that failure."

I know it's the way things are, but that's ridiculous.

How about: Fight for what you want while crafting the bill, and vote the way you feel on the final bill, regardless of whether it passes or fails?

Posted by: dpurp | October 27, 2009 12:06 PM | Report abuse

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