POLITICS
11/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dog Fight: Dueling Whip Counts Hold Fate Of Public Option

The Blue Dog Coalition is engaged in a member-to-member whip operation in the House, beginning with a survey of its 52 lawmakers, to find out where they stand on critical health care issues. The principal focus is the public insurance option, but the canvass also touches on various tax and revenue increase proposals to pay for reform.

The pressure is being mounted after three House committees already passed reform bills and House Democratic leaders are working to merge them into a final floor package.

For the first time since they formed in 1995, the Blue Dogs have been out-organized by their liberal counterparts. The Congressional Progressive Caucus completed its first survey and began whipping back in the spring. They launched a final whip count last week that will be finished by Wednesday evening.

The whip count builds on an earlier letter that 60 members of the progressive caucus signed, pledging to oppose any health care bill without a "robust public option."

"We're going back to those people and saying, 'Hey, are you still with the letter?'" said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chair of the CPC. "And if there's been slippage, how much? And if we have a committed core, how many?"

Grijalva is asking members to back the public option all the way through the process, not simply on the first vote on the House floor.

The count comes in advance of a critical House Democratic caucus meeting Thursday morning in the Capitol, where leadership will take their own whip count. The fate of the public option in the House will be largely determined by the parallel whip efforts -- and how aggressive each bloc is in pushing for its priorities. In other words, it comes down to which pack wants it more, the Blue Dogs or the progressives.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has insisted that a bill without a public option wouldn't have the votes to pass because her more progressive members would oppose. Her top lieutenant, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), has long been closer to the Blue Dogs and took a different position, saying that the public option may have to be scuttled to get a package through the House.

Blue Dogs were alarmed when Pelosi said that a sizable number of their crew in fact back a public option. So they resolved to find out.

"It's just confusing to a lot of people when the Speaker says that, you know, there might be 18 or 20 Blue Dogs that might vote for a strong public option," said Blue Dog Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.). "We don't know if those numbers are there or not. That's the kind of thing they're trying to figure out."

Boyd said that the survey of members is ongoing, but the idea of health care cooperatives, which emerged among conservative Senate Democrats as an alternative to the public option, is something the Blue Dogs will likely get behind.

"I think that's one of the things that we'll talk about in that caucus [meeting], and you'll see the Blue Dogs weigh in," he said. "I think there'll be more clarity. We're taking positions on certain parts of it."

One Blue Dog they can't count on is Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.).

"I'm for a robust public option and I filled out my survey to say I was," Harman told the Huffington Post.

Grijalva said that the progressives' count has gone well.

"The progressive caucus whip count has done very well maintaining the support we had a month ago. In fact, in some areas it's increased for the public option," said Grijalva.

"I won't know until this afternoon" what the exact count is, he added, because he has about eight members of a whip team who plan to report back to him.

It's not entirely clear how far that team has penetrated, however. "We have a whip team?" asked Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), a CPC vice chair, sounding both surprised and impressed. He hasn't decided yet whether to commit to oppose any health care bill that doesn't have a robust public option, he said, but he is leaning in that direction. He stressed that the bill that first passes on the House floor must include such a public option.

CPC leaders said that the emphasis on cost-savings, and Obama's decision to push the bill down to $900 billion over ten years, makes the public option all the more attractive. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that a government-run plan could save $65-100 billion over that time period.

"It is beyond me, when they're the ones that are all about cost savings, that they don't get that the more robust the public option, based on an established rate system like Medicare, the more we save," said CPC Co-Chair Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.).

That argument resonates with Harman, who said that a "number" of other Blue Dogs agree with her. The lack of forceful opposition to the public option from Blue Dogs can be explained: The idea has polled well in Blue Dog districts and the coalition has pushed for more spending on rural hospitals. Including a public option is one way to pay for that.

"I see it as a market-forcing mechanism to keep costs down. I think it will correct what is presently a market failure, where in some states there's only one insurance option," Harman said. "So if I'm right, a robust public option -- if I'm right -- fulfills the core Blue Dog mission, which is fiscal discipline."

After being told that Woolsey wanted to speak with her when the interview was over, Harman ventured: "She wants to make sure I'm not going to cave."

She walked over to Woolsey, put her hand on her shoulder, and looked her in the eye. "I'm not going to cave," Harman told her. It was that kind of support, Woolsey responded, that would carry the public option through.

But it all comes down to numbers. "I just don't believe that there are 218 Democratic votes in the House for any bill," said Boyd. "That means you've gotta have some votes from the other side."

Not necessarily. With 256 Democrats, Pelosi could lose 38 Blue Dogs and still pass a bill without the GOP.

"The Speaker knows this a little better than I do," Boyd conceded.

Grijalva will know how strong the progressive hand is by the time the caucus meets. "Tonight we'll see how the numbers add up," he said.

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