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Jay Rockefeller's inconvenient honesty on the public option


Sen. Jay Rockefeller did something very strange last night: He was honest. He said, publicly, that he does not support adding the public option to the reconciliation bill. And he's going to pay for it today.

Rockefeller isn't a closet public option opponent. He's not only been an advocate for the public option, but he offered the amendment proposing the strong public option. It like the old joke about the swearing pianist: Does Rockefeller know the public option? He wrote the public option. It was Rockefeller amendment C6.

But Rockefeller amendment C6 failed. So too did Chuck Schumer's amendment to add a weak public option to the Senate bill. And then a coalition of conservative Democrats kept Harry Reid's public option out of the final bill. The public option, it seemed, was dead.

Over the past week, the public option has made an unexpected comeback. As of this morning, 23 Democrats had signed a letter asking Reid to add it into the bill during the reconciliation process. The White House and the Senate leadership both said that if the public option had the votes, they wouldn't oppose its inclusion. But privately, most of the offices were saying the same thing: We don't want to oppose the public option, but we don't want to reopen the public option debate.

But they signed the letter anyway. They described it as a collective action problem: If everyone signed it, Democrats had a serious problem on their hands. But no one individual wanted to oppose it.

It would be fair, at this point, to ask why Democrats would have a problem if they attempted to pass the public option. The public option is popular policy, it's good policy, and it energizes the base. The problem is that it's not popular policy with the handful of conservative House and Senate votes that you need to push this bill over the finish line.

Caucus politics present another dilemma: The public option died due to the opposition of Nelson, Landrieu, Lincoln, Lieberman and a handful of other conservative -- and vulnerable -- Democrats. Reid cut a deal with them, and they signed onto the final product. For many, that was a big political risk. The price was letting them say they killed the public option. Bringing it back to the bill will mean they voted for a bill that ended up including something they'd promised their constituents they'd killed. Cross them on this and you've lost their trust -- and thus their votes -- in the future.

Then there's the larger political strategy that the White House, and the Democrats, seem to have settled on. The idea, which is centered around Thursday's summit, is to look more bipartisan than the obstructionist Republicans. Resuscitating the most controversial part of the bill does not fit with that plan.

I'm not defending these arguments. I don't think conservative Democrats will pick up even a single vote if the final plan doesn't include a public option, while I think they'll probably gain a few if their base feels like they won something big this year. Nor have I seen any evidence that Americans will reward Democrats for being bipartisan if Republicans refuse to cooperate with the strategy. But that's the thinking.

Amid all of this, you have a lot of Senate Democrats getting the base's hopes up because, well, it's good personal politics to sign the letter, even if they think actually bringing the public option back into play would be bad legislative politics. I've had multiple offices tell me that they think this whole public option resurgence makes passage of the bill less likely, even as their bosses are being touted as supporters of the public option strategy.

The likely outcome of that will be another crushing and confusing letdown for the party's most ardent supporters, which leads them to turn on the bill and its authors, and makes final passage of health-care reform that much less likely.

Rockefeller will pay for his comment yesterday, because he said publicly what the other offices are saying privately: He supports the public option, but think it's too dangerous to attempt in a reconciliation meant to close out a fragile and uncertain process. The left is going to hammer him for that, and understandably so. I wouldn't be surprised to see him walk it back. But the truth is he's treating liberals with a lot more respect than the offices that are telling them what they want to hear but have no intention of actually passing a public option.

photo credit: Akira Hakuta/The Washington Post.

By Ezra Klein  |  February 23, 2010; 10:58 AM ET
Categories:  Health Reform  
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Next: A failure of White House leadership


So, in short, you want to force everyone to buy insurance from private companies with no option in order to make Nelson and Landrieu happy?

IOW -- Rockefeller is saying the Dems are short-sighted, spineless cowards. And you applaud him for that.

That is bad, bad politics and policy.

Gawd, these idiots are going to be shocked come November.

Posted by: AZProgressive | February 23, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

I'd rather see a medicare buy in than a public option, but neither, in my opinion, should be included in the reconciliation fix. If you want to do it, do it in a stand alone bill.

Posted by: nisleib | February 23, 2010 11:04 AM | Report abuse

If Dems don't have the courage to include the public option in reconciliation they probably don't have the courage to use reconciliation to pass HCR. If that is the case HCR is really and truly dead.

Posted by: pwkennedy | February 23, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

If Lieberman and Nelson want to scuttle this, and they have the numbers, they should come out and say it.

They shouldn't get Rockafeller to carry their water for them.

Posted by: adamiani | February 23, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

"But the truth is he's treating liberals with a lot more respect than the offices that are telling them what they want to hear but have no intention of actually passing a public option."

Politics isn't about one's most innermost thoughts, it's about collective action. Say JR kept quiet and that 23 grew to 40 -- even if some were privately questioning the process, the number itself would have begun to assure (or pressure) the members.

So Rockefeller tried to stop that from happening for the usual reasons (special interests, etc). He's not some hero who dared to speak the truth to liberals, he's a guy who -- as usual -- shot down a liberal proposal once the goalposts could not be moved back anymore.

Posted by: Chris_ | February 23, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

I don't know. I think we need even more evidence that government is incapable of enacting good policy. That's how Democrats will ride to victory in 2010.

Posted by: slag | February 23, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

How many bites do they get at the reconciliation apple? Can they pass all the stuff Obama proposed, and make the public option a separate bill to be debated later? The risk in making it just an amendment is as you say, if it gets added the final bill might lose support, but if it could be added later we can have a straight up debate without endangering the whole effort.

Posted by: _SP_ | February 23, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

I can't get over the phenomenal wealth of the present governing democrats: Rockefeller, Feinstein, Pelosi, Emanuel, the Clintons. The list goes on and on. Clinton is halfway to being a billionaire. All these plutocrats are perfectly comfortable telling people of modest means that they need to have "skin in the game." meanwhile, they relax in their millions, soon to be billions....a few hundred thousand here or there is nothing to them. a million dollar loss to someone as rich as, say, Clinton -- why, a scrap, not worth bending over to pick up.

Posted by: truck1 | February 23, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

Ugh! We are so close to getting so much. Rockefeler is absolutely in the right. At this point, the fragility of the coalition necessary to get anything done has been demonstrated time and time again.

Many progressives seem hung up on the idea that if GWB was able to ramrod though his agenda with a smaller majority, we ought to be able to ramrod through ours. This ignores the reality that the Democratic party, for good or ill, is simply different than the Republican one. Bully tactics that preserved party discipline for them just don't translate to our side. No matter how much he swears, Dems will never fear Rahm the way Repubs feared Rove.

Is the Senate bill far from perfect? Of course it is. But it is also miles better than the status quo. It could literally be the difference between life and death for tens of thousands, maybe more. Now is not the time to gamble. Pass the bill that can be passed, even if it has warts, and know that lives were saved.

History has shown that if we gamble and lose, the second chance doesn't come for a long, long time. How many people die in that interim for lack of coverage? But history has also shown that once you get a foot in the door, it is much easier to incrementally move toward your ultimate goal.

Posted by: jleaux | February 23, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

Maybe Evan Bayh, Paul Ryan, and Rockefeller are the beginning of a trend. Maybe the gridlock is leading to a backlash against political obfuscation, and a new modicum of honesty in public debate. I think the public would be willing to give up partisan preferences for greater honesty. The "other side" seems less "other" when you don't feel they are lying to you.

Posted by: jduptonma | February 23, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

Gotta love this:

"Cross [Nelson, Lieberman, etc.] on this and you've lost their trust -- and thus their votes -- in the future."

Yes, liberals should now be worried that Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman and the other constantly contradictory senators won't trust *them.*

Posted by: cog145 | February 23, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

"Cross them on this and you've lost their trust -- and thus their votes -- in the future."

Are you saying there was a quid pro quo on this vote? We'll delete the public option to help you out as long as you agree to play ball in the future? I doubt that. Lieberman, especially, is guaranteed to vote for whatever feeds his ego, and whether the public option does or does not come back is irrelevant to that fact.

Secondly, doesn't this argument also apply to the Nebraska kickback? Isn't Nelson going to be pissed and take his toys and go home on future votes unless he gets his money? Why, then, is it legitimate to contemplate deleting that from the bill?

Either your argument cuts both ways or it doesn't cut either way. But you can't say "We have to keep a deal, however bad it may be, with everybody EXCEPT Nelson else they'l stop voting Democratic."

Posted by: pj_camp | February 23, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

If Lieberman and Nelson want to scuttle this, and they have the numbers, they should come out and say it.

They shouldn't get Rockafeller to carry their water for them.

Posted by: adamiani | February 23, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

I missed the gun to Rockefeller's head during all this? No one forced him to do this. He could have let this play out and forced the vote and then we'd all see who we already know are the ones scuttling this. Just dumb politics by Rockefeller if you ask me. I can't wait for the Sen. Rockefeller (Aetna- WV) comments that will follow from the far left.

Posted by: visionbrkr | February 23, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Democrats simply don't understand how to negotiate. What they need to do now is support the public option, or the most radical plan they can think of, as a bargaining posture.

I have a feeling that Obama is soon going to be overcome by the desire to make more unilateral concessions to Republicans and rightwing Democrats in order to appear "bipartisan". With a strong opening bid now, including the public option, Dems can avoid gutting the bill later.

Dems need to learn the difference between what you demand to start with and the minimum you actually expect to achieve as an outcome.

Posted by: Modicum | February 23, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

"it energizes the base"

Obviously. However, I think it's the last hope the Democrats have for energizing their base in a significant way for the 2010 election. Single-payer health care has been one of the top issues among progressives for a long time, and this health care reform bill is almost a defeat for us, even if it passes, though I'd personally still want it to pass. It seems like the base is all but resigned at this point.

"Cross them on this and you've lost their trust -- and thus their votes -- in the future."

I find it hard to believe they'd be that petty and childish. They have policies they support. They have convictions. If they really would just vote with Republicans because they're *nicer*, that would be surprising, and I don't think their constituents would appreciate a complete reversal of policy agenda. An elected official who acts like an 11-year-old with a grudge should not only not be allowed to run the country, but I don't think the voters would elect them to. But maybe I'm not being cynical enough.

Lastly, I just wish people would stop using "politics" in a way that means "a process in which people try to manipulate other people in order to keep their ass in power." That's the opposite of what "politics" means.

Posted by: jtravisrolko | February 23, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

Look, dreamers, if the Dems push a bill through it will be a gold mine for the drug companies and insurers, because now the previously uninsured will have the effective purchasing power of goods and services in the health economy. At the same time, there are no cost controls. The taxpayer pays all the bills. You'll make the Medicare entitlement system worse off because you have fewer options to control government debt now that you've used taxes to pay for another entitlement program.

Nobody has the balls to pay hospitals, doctors, and nurses less for more services. Thus the healthcare bill will create future burdens on taxpayers. Taxpayers know this heading into the November elections.

Posted by: RandomWalk1 | February 23, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

Yes, he's pissing off liberals/progressives.

It would be one thing if he said he was going to re-engage on the Public Option after some type of compromise bill was forged. But that isn't what he is saying.

But my question to Jay Rockefeller is: "If you believe in the Public Option, if you believe it is the right thing to do and will benefit millions of Americans, then who cares if it is made part of the bill at the beginning, middle, or end of the process IF IT IS INDEED PART OF THE FINAL BILL?!?!?!"

Don't punk out now Jay!

Posted by: pk2031 | February 23, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

adamiani, read Glenn G's post about this his point about "villain rotation."

Posted by: Chris_ | February 23, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

Randomwalk is exactly right. What you're doing here with this legislation is exactly the same thing that Ezra and many others (including myself) have with the current system relating to the tax exclusion. People are buffed from the cost due to the subsidies but no one getting it seems to care because they're getting free or "freer" insurance based upon their income. Accountability to cost is all I ask for.

Posted by: visionbrkr | February 23, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

sorry, should read "exactly the same PROBLEM"

Posted by: visionbrkr | February 23, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

Come on Ezra -- we know most of these jerks are lying when they sign on for the public option because they don't think they'll have to come through on it. Daddies Harry and Barack will save them from having to show their perfidy.

But you line 'em up this way, by force of popular rage, so that sometimes they end up doing better than they intended.

Posted by: janinsanfran | February 23, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

I think Greenwald's got it right...

Dems are trying to have it both ways: play the good guys (who just can't get the votes!) and have the corporate cash.

By now, who doesn't realize that the public option was sold by Obama, Rahm and the WH a long time ago for some 'support' from insurers, which meant them spending millions fighting the WH on the bill.

These guys are interested in pleasing the big firms with the big bucks, and doing what they can for people around the edges. Maybe that's best... Maybe it really is impossible to get congress to work in our interests at this point. But, what is happening is becoming crystal clear.

After Brown's win in MA, senate aides were saying their was 'relief' among senate dems! They were tired of making excuses for not coming through for us. Now, they have excuses -- except they still don't. They just don't value us over the money.

That said, in our lousy democracy, it's still the better option. Sad state of affairs.

Posted by: rat-raceparent | February 23, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

Rockerfeller's honesty and responsibility should be appreciated. He wants a strong public option (as do I), but he recognizes that a deal was made to eliminate it to get 60 votes in the Sentate, without which there would be no Senate bill today for the House to pass with a reconciliation fix. Therefore, without that Senate vote, health care really would be done for now. To try to put the public option back in now would be to go back on an agreement already made amongst Dems and there will not be 50 Senate Dems willing to do that and Rockefeller decided to be the responsible one and say so. Furthermore, the public option can always be added through reconciliation in a future Congress. No one promised that wouldnt happen in the future, they just promised not to include it now. Again, we need to pass the infrastructure of health care reform now (Senate bill) with a realistic reconciliation fix and work to make it better in the future. Contrary to what a lot of people seem to think, the history of reform in America, whether under Wilson, FDR or LBJ, is a history of small reform beginnings that would be built on later and made better. But first you have to start somewhere and the Senate bill with a realistic reconciliation fix is that somewhere and a lot better than where we will be without it.

Posted by: gregspolitics | February 23, 2010 1:51 PM | Report abuse

Jay Rockefeller fell on a sword that wasn't his to fall on.

Would the public option be able to pass reconciliation? Maybe, maybe not. That's almost beside the point, because it is what it is, and there's not much to be done about it.

But what can be done? Certain flagrant liars in the Democratic caucus can be outed to their constituents. No one is served by having elected officials, of either party, who pretend to be for something until it's actually possible to enact, then suddenly can't be bothered to support it anymore. That's the problem with Republicans obstructing deficit reduction, tax cuts, and tort reform. And it's equally as wrong with Democrats suddenly obstructing progressive health care (among other things).

Your history about the Rockefeller and Schumer amendments isn't really complete. They didn't just fail. They failed because members of the committee (looking at you, Max Baucus) claimed they wouldn't get 60 votes. Baucus specifically said he supported it but couldn't vote for it because his job as committee chairman was to report out a bill that could pass. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth from these Senators about how there were at least 51 Democrats that would have voted for it, but those darn Republicans wouldn't let it happen!

It was nonsense then, in that with a filibuster-proof majority it didn't procedurally matter to the Democrats what the Republicans did, only what other Democrats did; but the 60-vote threshold was still a problem even if they wouldn't admit where it was acutely coming from. But now? Now they are being shown for nothing but liars. They lied to their constituents, and now there is no more good kabuki to hide behind.

Do I think Rockefeller actually does support the public option? I'd say yes, or if I wanted to hedge my bets say probably. But right now, do I think Rockefeller is an idiot? Absolutely.

He just jumped in front of a political bullet for the same people who screwed him in committee.

If there is one rule of thumb about Democrats, it's that regardless of their intentions and how good or bad they are, this is a party full of people who are absolutely, positively politically tone deaf. They couldn't sell a glass of water in the desert. And if they tried, they'd let themselves get accused of selling battery acid instead, and would probably apologize to avoid confrontation.

Posted by: burndtdan | February 23, 2010 2:22 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, Ezra, the ones pushing the public option ARE NOT "the most ardent supporters." Otherwise, they would not throw a hissy fit when things don't go their way. Some of these "ardent" ones threatened to primary Bernie Sanders for god's sake. They are ardent supporters of the public option, not the politician. They are a fussy, whiny, selfish bunch. I've read them. According to them, they got Obama elected all alone. That's a hoot because the 50 ladies I worked with here for Obama were in their 60's and were not netroots. We still called, canvassed, worked his office 12 hrs a day in SC no less. I'm sure they were helpful, but a lot of other old folks like me were also./Rant

Posted by: carolerae48 | February 23, 2010 2:22 PM | Report abuse

Dear Mr. Klein, Dear Mr. Rockefeller:

There is not one single solitary American or foreigner here in the US for that matter, who does not have access to health care, insurance or not.

It is called the Hill-Burton Act and it is the very reason ERs are full of runny noses, pimples, hair not regrowing back into old scalp scars, skin turning green from wearing junk jewelry patients. But ERs are also full of very real and seriously ill patients who get the best care worldwide.

Show me one person who died because they did not have health insurance and sought care in a hospital. Just one.


Posted by: rosenose | February 23, 2010 6:07 PM | Report abuse


You say that:

"There is not one single solitary American or foreigner here in the US for that matter, who does not have access to health care, insurance or not.

It is called the Hill-Burton Act and it is the very reason ERs are full of runny noses, pimples, hair not regrowing back into old scalp scars, skin turning green from wearing junk jewelry patients. But ERs are also full of very real and seriously ill patients who get the best care worldwide."

I recently visited a busy hospital emergency room when my son broke his foot. They had an intake system where the most vital emergencies were taken in for triage, and patients with less immediate needs would wait. I did not see anyone with pimples or sniffles, and if such people had appeared, I am sure they would have received virtually no attention by the staff and they would have been turned away.

Must emergency rooms treat uninsured patients with true emergencies? Yes. Is that care free? No. The patients will be billed, put into collections, and hounded into bankruptcy if they lack insurance or other means to pay. So if you think that is "access to health care, insurance or not," you have a strange definition of "access."

"Show me one person who died because they did not have health insurance and sought care in a hospital. Just one."

OK. Here you go:

That kind of thing does not happen to Dick Cheney or Bill Clinton.

Many people die because they do not try to seek care because of their uninsured status. The studies and statistics on preventable mortality among the uninsured have been been published and discussed at length at this blog, and elsewhere.


Whatever you say, rosenose.

Posted by: Patrick_M | February 23, 2010 11:26 PM | Report abuse

I'd like to know who you think will make Rockefeller pay, Mr. Klein? West Virginia hasn't thrown out an incumbent in probably forever (he's been there 30 years and Byrd has been there since before he quit the Klan), and they won't throw out Rockefeller for doing the right thing by not breaching the agreement that got the bill through the Senate.

Posted by: bdr1968 | February 24, 2010 12:24 AM | Report abuse


Ezra is not saying that the voters in Jay Rockefeller's home state will not re-elect him.

He is saying that Rockefeller will experience a lot of heat in the next few days or possibly weeks from supporters of the public option around the country, and within the Congress, who considered him a leading advocate.

Now those same public option fans will be very disappointed that Jay Rock took a lot of the wind out of sails of the Bennet letter, by coming out against the effort to add a public option in reconciliation.

Posted by: Patrick_M | February 24, 2010 1:22 AM | Report abuse


I'm sure those groups will be upset with him, but I don't see how they will "make him pay." I took Mr. Klein to mean Jay would be put in some political peril with maybe a roots/Swift Boat-type campaign against him. I don't believe, with his current constituents, that type of pressure would work.

As a US Senator without Presidential aspirations, he pretty much has a job for life. He's been a junior Senator for 30 years and has done little to step out of Byrd's shadow. And for him that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Posted by: bdr1968 | February 24, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse

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