POLITICS
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Public Option Chess Match: Reid Working For Best Bargaining Position

There was a slew of good news on Thursday for supporters of a public option for health insurance coverage. Two Democratic Senators who have nominally opposed the provision -- Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Kent Conrad of North Dakota -- acknowledged, somewhat begrudgingly, that the White House was fairly certain to include it in a final health care overhaul. Another public option drifter, Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said he was open to its inclusion. ABC News, meanwhile, reported that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had come to the conclusion, following conversations with several key senators, that "he can pass a bill with a public option."

In actuality, the situation is not so clear or, for that matter, optimistic for the progressive community. In conversations with more than half a dozen health care strategists and Hill aides, the consensus seems to be that while momentum is growing for a public option, Senate Democrats still don't have the 60 votes needed to get a non-compromised version past a Republican filibuster.

Among the well informed, it was relayed that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was looking at whether he could pass a public option with an opt-out clause for states in the final Senate package. Reid would then work to make sure that a more robust, national public plan (which he himself favors) would be included in health care reform once the Senate's bill was merged with the House's version.

"The goal is to have the strongest possible bargaining position as possible," said one progressive health care strategist who has worked with leadership in Congress and the White House. "The opt-out option is the best of all the compromises and it puts Reid in decent position going into the conference committee."

As another Dem aide pushing the opt-out option relayed: "most of the feedback we've heard about opt-out has been positive, the worries focused on how it would function rather than whether or not it's a workable concept or that it would garner the needed support."

But not every signal on the health care front Thursday pointed to the opt-out clause's ascendancy. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), the lone Republican to offer her support for a variation of health care legislation, told reporters that she didn't support the provision. Going further, she declared that she would be against any public option (regardless of the version) that came immediately with reform.

In Democratic leadership circles, meanwhile, there was hesitancy to declare that the opt-out clause could get the necessary 60 votes needed to pass a Republican filibuster.

"There are lots of ideas being batted around right now," said one high-ranking aide. "I'm not sure which one is going to stick."

Reflecting how many different balls are currently up in the air on the provision, a group of Democratic senators were set to meet on Thursday to begin discussions on how they could tinker with the public option to make it more palatable to conservative Democrats. The group, which included Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Mark Warner (Virginia) and Michael Bennet (Colorado), ended up canceling the strategy session once word surfaced in the press.

All of which is not to say that the landscape doesn't looks more optimistic for the public option today then it did during the doldrums of August. Polling numbers for the provision have risen steadily since town-hall protesters dominated the news. And some of the recalcitrant conservative Democrats have expressed curiosity if not mild support for the opt-out compromise.

But the big decision may not be coming as soon as the news reports suggest. Indeed, while much ink has been spilled speculating how the Senate Finance and HELP Committees' respective health care bills will be melded together, strategists and even members of Congress already have their eyes set on the merger talks between the House and Senate.

"I really believe is that the time will come for the White House to get engaged," Rep. Jim Clyburn told the Bill Press Show on Thursday, when asked whether President Obama had done enough to get a public option in the bill. "I do believe that if the president were to get engaged too much with the Senate, I for one would be a little concerned about him not allowing the House to be as creative as we can be. If he were to get involved in the House then the Senate would be upset. So I really believe that the time for the president and White House to be engaged is when both houses have finished their work and then we go into negotiating a final product in conference."