Next week will be gut-check time for the bloc of progressives standing in opposition to any bill that doesn't include a public health insurance option.
The leadership of the Congressional Progressive Caucus plans a "whip count" for early in the week to gauge the strength of their coalition, caucus members tell the Huffington Post. The whip team will also approach members of the Congressional Black, Hispanic, and Asian Pacific American Caucuses.
Democrats hold 256 seats in Congress and need 218 to pass a bill, meaning 39 progressives, voting together, could tank the legislation, assuming all Republicans vote nay.
The whip count will send a message to the administration, said CPC co-chair Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.): "Don't cut deals with some elements of our party or with some elements of the Republican Party without including the progressives in that discussion," he suggested. "So we're going to count our votes, see how many we have and that's the number we're going to indicate to both the leadership and the administration."
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a member of CPC leadership, estimates that eighty to 100 members will make the pledge. The progressive caucus met on Thursday, following the president's speech, and members repeated their commitment to seeing the public option included in the bill, said Ellison.
Grijalva guessed the whip count would be lower than Ellison's estimate. "We need firm votes," he said.
A senior administration official said Wednesday that killing the bill for not including a public option would be "tragic." Centrist and conservative Democrats have expressed frustration at the forcefulness of the support for the public option, arguing that it's a distraction from the broader package.
In his address to Congress Wednesday, Obama reiterated that he supports the public option but is not demanding it.
A senior administration official told reporters before the speech that the president "wants to make clear what the place of the public option in this debate is. This is not a national debate about whether we have a public option for the tens of millions who are uninsured. It's about how we bring security and stability to hundreds of millions of Americans."
The emphasis reflects a political judgment that satisfying those already insured is more important. (Earlier in the day, the briefing was advertised as on-the-record, but just before it began, the ground rules were changed.)
Progressives, however, are trying to force the president in their direction. "I think the people who believe in public option are not going to be moved by the speech or by some representation that something is better than nothing," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).
"What I'm experiencing is a stronger commitment to it than I even saw in terms of when I was really working hard on [ending the war in Iraq]. People would say, 'Well, yeah, I'm with you,' but you didn't get the feeling they were really with you and that if they got lobbied by the leadership they would change. I don't get that with this. I get very strong feelings about it."
Waters said that progressive co-chair Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) told her that the whip count would start early next week. Woolsey was traveling home Friday and unavailable.
For Ellison, the debate over the public option is refreshing because it sharpens the ideological distinctions between the parties.
"Whose side are you on? It's actually great. We're peeling this onion back and we're getting down to a fundamental question regarding American economic justice. Because at the end of the day, if we keep on working this thing, they're going to have to admit: 'We just feel that the right to be rich and get richer is more important than the right to eat and have basic health care.' They'll have to say, 'My right to have another house and a boat is more important than your right to have health care.'"
Ellison added that it's a debate he's ready to have.
There's an external effort working in concert with the internal congressional debate. Grijalva said that the CPC is working with outside progressive groups to line up pressure for the public option. "We're doing a lot of whipping, but we're also doing a lot of external base discussions," he said. "That's something my colleagues need to gauge, not only the internal machinations but the external sensibilities of the base, which could quite easily turn against us if they see a pattern of caving in every time."
Ryan Grim is the author of This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America