Public Option on Deck for Friday

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Democratic Senators Jay Rockefeller and Chuck Schumer said Thursday evening that they plan to turn debate on the Senate Finance Committee toward a government-run public option on Friday. No public option is included in Chairman Max Baucus’s current health care reform bill and none is expected one to be added, simply because there are not enough supportive votes on the committee to pass such an amendment. (Health reform bills from the House and Senate HELP committee do include a public option and this is arguably the most contentious issue still to be worked out among Congressional Democrats.)

Baucus’s bill includes a plan for state-based, non-profit, non-governmental health insurance cooperatives, first proposed by Democratic Senator Kent Conrad. Co-ops would, like a public option, serve as an alternative to private health coverage but would lack the leverage power of a national public health insurance plan to exert influence over the entire health insurance and delivery markets. Disagreement over the public option was destined to come to a head on the Finance Committee, with Rockefeller citing the lack of a public option as one of the reasons he could not, if given the chance, vote for the original Baucus bill. (The bill was amended over the weekend to incorporate some of the amendments offered by senators on the committee, but still lacks a public option.) Politico’s Carrie Budoff Brown captured a great scene during a Thursday evening conference call hosted by Rockefeller and Schumer, in which the senators previewed their plans for Friday:

Here’s the scene: Reporters were sitting in the hearing room during a break, listening to a conference call — on their cellphones, on speakerphone — with Sen. Chuck Schumer and Sen. Jay Rockefeller about their strategy for passing the public option.

And just as Rockefeller launched a takedown of Sen. Kent Conrad’s co-op proposal — mentioning the senator by name — Conrad himself walked into the otherwise empty room, his hand tucked into his pants pocket and a sly grin on his face.

He stood in silence over the reporters’ cellphones and listened for 30 seconds.

Conrad, the model of Senate restraint, declined an offer to challenge Rockefeller. Actually, he didn’t respond to the offer. He walked away, likely biting his tongue.

Baucus has kept the committee working late into the evenings this week and the possibility that he will get through votes on the hundreds of proposed amendments to his bill by the end of the week is increasingly remote. On Thursday, Ranking Republican Chuck Grassley asked Baucus if he expected to keep the committee working Saturday and Sunday.

Grassley: “I got to Iowa every weekend and if I don’t have a weekend, obviously I can’t go to Iowa.”
Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow: “Mr. Chairman, that sounds like a country song.”
Baucus: “We’re going to work after these votes late into the evening and into tomorrow. Then we’ll re-assess where we are.”

The exchange was light-hearted, but also underscored Baucus’s desire to get through the amendments to his bill in a timely fashion, even if it means working overtime.

(Lastly, don’t miss an impressively comprehensive list retrievable documents related to the health care debate, along with places to follow it online, as compiled by Slate’s Timothy Noah.)