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Public Option Fight Splits Stimulus Gang: Lieberman, Collins, Specter

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A small band of Senate moderates who were essential to passing the stimulus package are trying to reunite on health care reform, but the public option remains a divisive issue.

Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Arlen Specter (D-Penn.) had only kind words for one another when they first rolled out a modest "tripartisan" cost-cutting amendment to the Senate health care bill on Friday, but in short order they were sniping back and forth about the public plan.

"It would be wrong and terrible for our country," said Lieberman, who repeated the Republican mantra that the public option would quickly lead to a single-payer health insurance system. While Collins cited Maine's poor experience with a statewide Medicaid supplement, Lieberman relied more on speculative arguments.

"A public option insurance company won't help a single poor person get insurance, it won't force a single insurance company to give insurance to people who are sick and it won't even contain costs," he said.

That's not true, Specter pointed out.

"The public option isn't single-payer, and it is not going to add to the deficit. It's going to be a level playing field," he said, adding that he "won't make any concessions" on the public plan. "I would like everyone to read the fine print, and for Susan and Joe to reread the fine print."

The three relative moderates were much chummier back in February, when Specter was still a Republican. He and Collins, along with conservative Democrat Ben Nelson (Neb.), were ultimately swayed to vote for the bill, thanks in large part to Lieberman.

That deal, however, largely turned on targeted cuts to state aid and other agreed-upon planks of the stimulus, rather than a fundamental policy argument. "This is not easily compromised," Collins said of the public option. "It's not like a funding dispute, where you can split the difference."

Still, the amendment process isn't over, and Specter evinced optimism that the other side will budge. "This bill may be so good, look so good to Senator Lieberman, that he may be willing to make some accommodations," Specter said, prompting tight smiles from the other two senators and a wave of laughter from the gathered press.

"That's not a laugh line," he said.

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