POLITICS

Where Is Kent Conrad Getting His Whip Count?

09/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There are 60 members of the Senate's Democratic caucus -- so why is Sen. Kent Conrad insisting that that there aren't enough votes to pass a public health insurance option as part of comprehensive reform bill?

"The fact of the matter is there are not the votes in the United States Senate for the public option, there never have been, so to continue to chase that rabbit is just a wasted effort," Conrad said on Fox News Sunday.

Conrad, a Democrat from North Dakota (pop. 641,481), is presumably assuming that a bill containing a public option would need 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. But even if that is the case, not a single member of the Democratic caucus -- including Conrad himself -- has actually announced that he or she would support such a filibuster. And a few Republicans -- Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine -- might not support it either.

"Senator Conrad should leave the vote counting to the leadership," a peeved Democratic leadership aide told the Huffington Post.

Conrad, the Budget Committee chairman, is also a key Finance Committee member, and is one of the bipartisan "Gang of Six" that has taken on the role of lead health care negotiators.

One thing to keep in mind is that there may not be a separate vote on the public option; it could simply come down to an up or down vote on the entire bill, with the public option included. For instance, even if the Finance Committee bill doesn't include a public option, the Democratic leadership, when it combines the bill with the health committee version, could include it. Another outside possibility is that senators could be faced with a bill coming out of conference committee that includes the public option, even if their chamber didn't vote for it initially.

Conrad, somewhat morbidly, appears to be assuming in his whip count that two members of the caucus, Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Bob Byrd (D-W.Va.), will be too ill to vote. Conrad has previously noted to reporters that both may not be able to vote because of health concerns.

Byrd, however, made it to several votes just before recess. And health care reform is the defining policy and political goal of Kennedy's life. If both showed up, someone from the Democratic caucus would have to break ranks to kill the public option. Who would do it?

Even Conrad himself is not a definite no. His spokesman said he has yet to take a personal position on the public option.

At least three other caucus members have spoken critically about the public option: Mary Landrieu (La., pop.), Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

Landrieu, however, has said that despite her opposition, she could still vote for a comprehensive reform package that included a public option, depending on the details. She told the Huffington Post recently that it's too early to say whether she should support a filibuster of a bill that included a public option.

Nelson, too, is leaving his options open, saying that there is no bill yet. He told a local Nebraska official in June that he wouldn't filibuster a public option. (Neb. pop.: 1,783,432.)

Lieberman has also said the he is open to supporting it as part of a broad package.

Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) previously expressed some doubt about the public option but wound up voting for it in the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, as did Sen. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), the third Democrat in the Gang of Six, along with Conrad and Finance Committee chair Max Baucus of Montana (pop. 967,440).

Centrist Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey also voted for the public option in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee; and moderates Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Jim Webb (D-Va.) have publicly signed on to the idea.

In May, six other possible no votes -- Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Arlen Specter (D-Penn.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) -- told the Huffington Post that they were at least open to considering a public option.

When it comes to an up or down vote on the entire bill, one factor all Democrats will surely keep in mind is the cost to their party if health care reform fails.

In a speech in Pittsburgh Thursday to liberal bloggers, former President Clinton argued that the passage of a reform bill will lead to a spike in Democratic approval. By contrast, Democrats paid a high price -- both the House and the Senate -- for failing to reform health care in 1993 and 1994.

And even if a few Democrats either can't make the vote, or defect, three Republicans -- North Carolina's Richard Burr, along with Snowe and Collins -- have said they're open to some form of public option.

"It's okay if you want to have a government option, but you've got to leave the private sector private," Burr told a local paper on Friday. (HuffPost contacted Burr's office and has started the walk-back clock on that one.)

OpenLeft's Chris Bowers has his own whip count going, as does blogger and statistician Nate Silver. They consider a host of alternate scenarios, and reach no firm conclusions, other than with more than 40 firm votes, Democrats could themselves successfully filibuster any attempt to strip the public option out of the full bill

FireDogLake's Jane Hamsher, meanwhile, raises a subject that the Senate doesn't often like to consider: There are, in fact, two chambers of Congress. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has floated her own vote tally, saying that health care reform without a public option doesn't have the votes.

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, responded to the wavering around the public option by reiterating the threat to block reform that doesn't include it.

"As we have stated repeatedly for months now, a majority of the members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus will oppose any healthcare reform legislation that does not include a robust public option. Our position has not, and will not, change," he said. "As Co-Chair of the Progressive Caucus, I look forward to working with my colleagues to develop comprehensive legislation that allows all Americans to choose the healthcare plan that's right for them and their families. But I will not support any bill that does not include a public option."

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