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Reid Is Only One Or Two Votes Shy On Opt-Out Public Option

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is just one or two Senate votes shy of having a filibuster-proof majority in favor of a public option for health insurance coverage with a provision allowing states to opt-out, multiple sources tell the Huffington Post.

The Nevada Democrat, according to Hill sources, is furiously working the phones today to ensure that 60 Senators (including him) will back the provision. The work will continue through the weekend and comes despite the president's indication in a meeting Thursday evening at the White House that he prefers a public option that would be triggered in by certain conditions over the "opt-out" alternative.

Advocates of the public option consider the trigger an industry attempt to kill the public option because it likely would never be triggered. Obama's support of the insurance industry position saps momentum from the public-option drive.

Reid doesn't intend to drag the decision out. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) told HuffPost that when he asked the leader on Wednesday if he could send Reid a letter reiterating his support for a strong public option, Reid told him to hurry.

"He said, 'Yeah, but do it today.' And that's a hint of the pressure he's under and the pace he wants to keep," said Rockefeller.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), the lone congressional Republican to hint that she would support health care reform, favors the trigger proposal and has said she would oppose the opt-out version. At the White House, Democratic sources say, Reid told Obama he intended to pursue the national public option with an opt-out provision and was busily gathering the necessary votes. Obama reacted coolly.

"He certainly didn't embrace it and he seemed to indicate a preference for continuing to work on a strategy that involved Senator Snowe and a trigger," said a senior Democratic source who was briefed on the meeting. A second aide whose boss was in the room confirmed the general nature of the exchange.

But administration officials claimed on Friday that the president "did not express a preference" between the trigger or opt-out proposals during the meeting with Senators.

"The president thinks that the public option is the best way to achieve choice and competition and bring down health care costs for the American people," spokesman Bill Burton added on Friday. "And he will continue to ensure that it is achieved in the final health care reform legislation."

Reid is likely to push ahead for the public option despite Obama's inclination toward a trigger. Aides on the Hill and strategists outside of Congress say that Reid sees an opening for getting a public option with a state-exempt clause past a Republican filibuster. The proposal is far more popular than the trigger within the Democratic caucus, these sources stressed. And it would be met with approval among the progressive community, which believes that triggers would result in a public option never coming into existence.

"If we can get an opt-out in federal program with no trigger -- that is not everything we wanted but it is a huge victory and good policy," emailed one high-ranking strategist. "The trigger is really a deal-killer."

Going down this route, however, will still require the recruitment of at least one conservative Democratic hold-out and maybe two. The identity of the hold-out(s) is not known. Nor were names shared by sources. But it's not difficult to compile a list of suspects; namely the group of Democrats who have already expressed skepticism about a public plan.

Already, the lobbying campaign around the opt-out public option is intensifying. Overheard at the America's Health Insurance Plans state conference rally on Friday was a company official discussing the need to work with Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) on her position on a government-run plan. "I've put a call into her office," the official said. "We need to chat with her."

Tensions are at a fever pitch, both within the Capitol and among the Democratic base. "Debbie Stabenow, as I am, is a huge advocate of the public option," Rockefeller said, referring to the Michigan Democrat. "She changed what she called it to something like 'consumer's choice,' or something like that, and [got] these thousands of emails and letters and telephone calls condemning her as a traitor to the cause. So you've got to be very careful with all of this."

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