Lieberman's Defection Just The Beginning Of Reid's Headaches

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

Sen. Joseph Lieberman's threat to join a Republican filibuster of health care legislation that includes a public insurance option is just one of many possible scenarios in which the reform process could still break down.

The Connecticut Independent was widely expected to be a nuisance in Democratic led efforts at crafting legislation. But by pursuing a strategy that leans almost exclusively on maintaining party discipline, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) drastically elevated Lieberman's importance.

In the White House and on the Hill, the main concern seems to be that Lieberman's defection will provide cover to other so-called centrist Democrats to express their opposition to Reid's bill. But even as aides stew privately, there is a noticeable lack of panic.

News that Lieberman was staking out a position of opposition was greeted mostly with shrugs. Leadership had all the predictable reactions: expressing deference to the senator's philosophical objections to a public plan (even one with an opt-out clause for the states), insisting that the negotiating process is still in its nascent stages, predicting that he would be brought back into the fold, and so forth. Health care reform obituaries were noticeably not written.

"I'm not surprised at what he's saying," said one Democratic aide. "It's par for his course... would we have predicted anything different?"

The maintain-calm response may have been strategic. In private, Democratic strategist stressed that the way to handle the situation would be to deny Lieberman the thing he craved most: relevancy and attention. But the more honest explanation may have been provided by health care debate's most curious third person quote to date.

"Joe Lieberman is the least of Harry Reid's problems," Reid told reporters on Tuesday.

Indeed, as Reid and -- to whatever extent it gets involved -- the White House attempt to patch together the votes to get health care legislation through Congress, they still need to refine and write the legislation. Reid, an aide said, outlined various proposals in the Democratic Caucus meeting on Tuesday and will be sending those proposals to the Congressional Budget Office for scoring in the upcoming days. Once those numbers are back, the tinkering will begin. As will the horse-trading.

"It is not a foregone conclusion that the public option -- at least this approach -- is a done deal," said one high-ranking aide who's a fan of the opt-out option. "We are optimistic. But still there is going to have to be a major push for it... There are still gong to be questions about the overall costs and how to pay for it, and the public option helps with that. But there remains some serious opposition."

Then there are questions over how to structure the pay-or-play provisions. Settling on the fine to levy on those individuals who refuse to buy insurance seems likely to generate the most heated debate outside the public plan. And there is a widespread expectation that it will result in an escalated lobbying war as the private health insurance industry attempts to increase the penalty attached to the individual mandate.

Once these questions are settled, many hurdles remain. While Lieberman has said he would vote to allow a bill to be debated and amended, he stressed he would not vote on a cloture motion -- which requires 60 votes -- to cut off that debate. But he's not the only senator tugging Reid's shoulder. Should the majority leader drop the public plan in favor of, say, a trigger approach (which Lieberman also opposes), he seems destined to lose several progressive members. In other words, Reid may not get the 60 votes needed for cloture just by placating Lieberman.

"This of course is going to be very difficult," said Howard Dean, the former DNC Chair and a strategist working with Senate Dems to get reform passed. "I think Harry threaded the needle very, very well in the Senate. He deserves a lot of credit for getting this far because it was not an easy thing to get done."

Even if Reid were to hold 60 votes together and get a bill through the Senate, the Senate and House of Representatives still will have to meld their versions of reform together. And a host of flash-fires seem likely to erupt during that process as well.

"As you move forward the issues are getting narrower and narrower and when we get to conference there will be a few bigger issues that have to be decided but with a lot of debate leading to those," said Richard Kirsch, National Campaign Manager for Health Care for America Now. "I think it will be a real battle but it will be one that will get resolved... someway."

Once Congress merges its respective pieces of legislation, both Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will need to ensure that their majority coalitions have remained intact -- because the bills will have to be voted on once again. And even that (as exemplified by Lieberman's antics on Tuesday) is not a sure thing.

Reid, at this point, seems to be pursuing a strategy premised on stage-by-stage legislative advancement -- cobbling enough political support to simply keep the process moving forward. Such an approach could result in failure or stagnation at any stage. But proponents believe and hope that it will create a sense of inevitability that will bring skeptics like Lieberman into the fold.

"I think there has been a big change in momentum since the late summer and a growing belief in the Caucus that this is a reasonable compromise," said Sen. Jeff Merkley, a day before Lieberman's announcement. "[The opt-out] is a reasonable way to bridge our differences.... And when we get to a point where we are in conference with the House, I think we will be 90 percent done."

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