Senator Ben Nelson, one of the key figures in the health care reform fight, has told a local official in his state that he could support cloture on a public plan for insurance coverage even if he opposed the bill itself.
The Nebraska Democrat, who has skeptically approached the idea of a government or publicly-run insurance program, additionally told state Democrats not to assume that he will oppose such a proposal in a final reform package.
"He's not against anything right now," said Bud Pettigrew, the chair of county chairs for the Nebraska Democratic Party, who fielded a phone call from Nelson on Monday. "But he does want to read the plans that come out first and then make a judgment."
"He is open to some type of government plan but he wants to see the details first," Pettigrew added. "He wishes the liberals would give him a chance."
And yet, even if Nelson were to oppose the final bill, his vote may not hold as much significance as expected. According to Pettigrew, the senator said he will not be the 60th Senator to sustain a filibuster on a bill that he ultimately would oppose. "If it comes to cloture I would vote for it," Nelson said, according to Pettigrew. "I will not be the deciding vote."
Asked for clarification, the senator's office offered a somewhat watered-down but largely concurring statement.
"Regarding cloture, the Senator's position is that he may support cloture even if he doesn't support some provisions of the underlying bill," said Jake Thompson, a spokesman for Nelson. "It is impossible to know how he will vote until he sees an actual bill, but it is correct to assume that he may support cloture even if he doesn't agree with some of the provisions of the bill."
The remarks come as Nelson has attempted to assuage concerns from Nebraska's small but vocal progressive community over the way he has approached a health care system overhaul. In addition to talking with Pettigrew by phone for half-an-hour, Nelson also contacted Rich Schommer, the Democratic Party chair of Box Butte County, last Friday to talk all things health care. That conversation, however, left a more negative impression about the Senator's support for a public plan.
"He would not come out and say it, but I think he is absolutely against it," said Schommer. "It's just his attitude. I kept telling him. I thought there had to be a public plan. But he said he didn't think it would work, that government programs never work."
"He said that he might support a plan with a trigger," Schommer added, referencing a system whereby a plan would be put in place once certain economic conditions are met. "And I contended that they pulled the trigger sixteen years ago when [the insurance industry] undermined the Clinton plan..."
Publicly, to this point, Nelson has left the impression that he would vote against a public plan, which would allow consumers to buy into government-run insurance coverage. His reasoning has been that it would unfairly affect private providers and could be a step towards a single-payer system. But in an earlier interview with the Huffington Post, the Nebraskan did say he would remain open to a public option if it did not erode the current system. He also expressed support for a trigger.
"It is true that Sen. Nelson may vote for a public option," said Thompson. "He has supported public plans such as Medicare and Tri-care and, as governor, created Kids Connection which is the Nebraska SCHIP program. Funding was cut from this program after Nelson left office. However, as Sen. Nelson has told the Huffington Post and others, he will not support a government health plan if it is designed undermine the insurance now held by 200 million Americans, or shift higher costs onto the estimated 85% of Nebraskans that currently have health insurance.
Should Nelson's commitment to opposing a filibuster on a public plan prove true, it could be a major boost for progressive health care reform advocates. While Democrats in the Senate and the Obama administration have left the door open towards using budget reconciliation to pass health care reform (which would require a simple up and down vote), the working assumption remains that 60 votes would be needed to pass any bill.
"It's good to hear that Senator Nelson is not going to block the views of the majority on reform," said Richard Kirsch, National Campaign Director for Health Care for America Now.
In addition to telling Pettigrew about his take on the public plan, Nelson also relayed word that he opposed a measure to end the tax exemption for employers who provided health care coverage to their workers. That proposal, which has gained some traction in Congress (including with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus), is seen as a practical way to help pay for reform.
Nelson also told Pettigrew that he supported a mandate for individuals, including youth, to buy health care coverage. He also declared that insurance companies had conceded to him that they would cover preexisting conditions as part of a health care compromise.
Pettigrew also discussed what is an important subtext to the Nelson call. "The liberals are kicking him in the ass right now and he is feeling it," he said, when asked why he received a half-hour call from the state's preeminent politician. Since late May, the reform group Change Congress has been running a public campaign targeting Nelson for his position on a public option, including direct mail pieces, online ads and calls to Democratic donors.
"If Senator Nelson supports cloture on the public option, that is welcome news," said Adam Green, CEO of Change Congress, "and concrete proof that when we call out politicians for siding with their special-interest donors it forces them to be more responsive to their constituents."