The Lieberman Option

Could one of the left’s least favorite senators kill health care reform?

From now until health care reform either passes or dies, there will be a series of daily eruptions that will rival the ones from August for passion, confusion, and mischief. Today’s installment was Sen. Joe Lieberman’s announcement that he will filibuster the health care reform bill in the Senate because it includes a government-run insurance program, even though it’s designed to allow states to “opt out.” Because Democrats need 60 votes to end a filibuster, they need all 58 Democrats, plus independents Lieberman and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, to fight a unified Republican side. Without Joe, in other words, health care reform dies.

This announcement caused a stir among certain kinds of liberals for two reasons. First, they hate Joe Lieberman with a pore-cleansing passion. The bill of particulars is long, but the primary inflammation comes from Lieberman’s support of George Bush’s Iraq policy and the senator’s suggestion that Democrats who opposed Bush were unpatriotic. He also suggested, during the campaign, that Barack Obama did not always “put his country first.”

Second, Lieberman saw fit to announce his effort to kill one form of the public option just as the idea was rising from the table at the morgue. Senate majority leader Harry Reid, after spending weeks privately saying the public option was dead, decided to include a version of it in the Senate bill.

Polls were also adding to the momentum. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed that 72 percent of Americans support a public option, the highest proportion yet. Republicans have been arguing for months that the public option is the root of all evil, yet it has only gotten more popular. Perhaps this latest poll would help frightened lawmakers get onboard.

Then Joe happened.

Lieberman’s move was not news to Reid. Despite the recent fanfare over the majority leader’s decision to include the public option in the bill he brings to the Senate floor, Reid has always assumed that the bill he brings to the floor would have to change before it could get 60 votes or more. That’s why Reid reacted to the news with a shrug. “Joe Lieberman is the least of Harry Reid’s problems,” said Reid at his weekly press conference, demonstrating, as Bob Dole did, that referring to yourself in the third person comes with the fancy title.

Reid not only has to get Lieberman’s vote but also can’t afford to lose any of the handful of moderate Senate Democrats like Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, Evan Bayh, and Mark Pryor, all of whom have reservations about the public option. Most have been noncommittal, except Bayh who has taken a similar position to Lieberman’s—supporting a filibuster on the final bill—if fees placed on the medical-device industry are not removed.

The White House shares Reid’s view of Lieberman. Aides have always assumed that the Senate legislation will change to get those Democratic votes, and perhaps win back Sen. Olympia Snowe and maybe even another Republican or two.

Lieberman’s move highlights how confusing the final health care slog is going to be and why there’s so much room for misinterpretation. The obstacles to reform shift quickly. As recently as a few days ago it was unclear whether Reid would have 60 votes even to bring a health care bill to the floor of the Senate for a vote. When that was an issue, Lieberman’s decision to support the Democratic leader was seen as good news for the public option. With that hurdle cleared though, now Lieberman is an impediment.

The distinctions between the different public options under discussion also gets lost in the debate. As of now, there are many options on the public option. They range from a “robust” House version (basically an expansion of Medicare) to the “trigger” proposal favored by Olympia Snowe (the government gets involved only under limited conditions). In between are plans that would allow states to “opt out” of a public plan (they’re part of it unless they say no) or “opt in” (they’re not part of it unless they say yes). Just because a senator says he or she is open to a “compromise” on the public option does not mean that senator backs the Reid “opt out” plan. It could mean he or she will support a “trigger,” which those who back a “robust public option” don’t consider a public option at all.

It might be helpful to come to an agreement about what we mean by “public option” before determining how much support there is in the Senate for the measure. If public option is defined as any of the various plans described in the previous paragraph, then Harry Reid might have 60 votes for it. If it is defined as the specific public option now in the bill he has proposed, then he doesn’t.

Viewed in this context, Lieberman’s announcement is not so much surprising as clarifying: It brings a vague situation into relief.

Still, what’s a Lieberman critic to think at the end of this episode? Genuine detractors don’t need advice. They know what to think. Lieberman certainly can be accused of being a senator. He wants to be the one courted. Think of him as the new Olympia Snowe. The bazaar is open in the Senate, and moderate senators who want to be wooed by the White House can do so by expressing their “concerns.” This can either be an act of ego or a legitimate use of power to get policy changes. In a sense, Lieberman is playing exactly the kind of hardball politics that public option advocates have been asking Obama to use against moderate senators.

There are also grounds to question Lieberman’s reasoning. In announcing his position, he said he’s worried about the budget implications of the public plan. But the Congressional Budget Office has said the stronger versions of the public plan actually save money, which means Lieberman doesn’t have much of a case. If you’re going to hate Lieberman for this, however, you’ll also have to lump in those other moderate Democrats who have also expressed concerns about the budget.

For now, the Senate process is in a bit of a pause. In a week, the Congressional Budget Office economists and policy experts will deliver a verdict on the health care plan that includes Reid’s version of the public option. That will flush out some of the moderate Democrats who have said they want to see that assessment before rendering a verdict of the kind Lieberman did today. Then it will be clearer whether Joe is really the only one standing in the way.