In a breakthough in Senate negotiations around a public health insurance option, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) sat down with centrist conservative Democrats for the first time Saturday since the bipartisan Gang of Six broke up shortly after returning from the August recess.
Since then, Snowe, the most likely Republican to cross the aisle on health care reform, has been meeting individually with Democrats, but had yet to rejoin negotiations in a formal way.
Snowe, emerging from a meeting on the first floor of the Capitol, Saturday afternoon, told a few reporters hovering outside the room that she had been approached earlier that morning about attending.
She said that no agreement had yet been reached, but that the group was considering "another option," aside from those already under discussion. An agreement had been reached that it would not be publicly discussed, she said, until more details were worked out. Earlier Saturday, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) also mentioned the new option being kicked around but said he couldn't discuss it.
Kerry said that Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) was one of the leading intellectual fathers of this new approach, an assertion Snowe confirmed, adding that Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) were also closely involved.
Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colorado), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) also attended the meeting.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) was not at the meeting and has vowed to filibuster any bill that has any version of a public option. If Lieberman holds to his threat, Democrats would need Snowe to break a GOP-Lieberman filibuster.
Snowe said she was still pushing her "trigger" proposal and met yesterday with Kerry to discuss it. Kerry, she said, has long been open to such a plan. Under her trigger, the public option would only be available in states where private insurance is deemed unaffordable to a certain percentage of residents. Advocates of the public option say a trigger is as good as no public option at all, because it will be gamed by insurance companies so that it never "triggers."
Snowe said Kerry's been in discussions with her about her proposal for months. "[She and Kerry] have, even prior to this, [had discussions] on the Finance Committee about the possibility of a trigger and how it would work and so on," she said.
As the conservative meeting was breaking up, a separate meeting on the Hill began, where liberal Democrats met to discuss their own strategy around the public option.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was also in the Capitol Saturday, but didn't attend either meeting.
"I've talked to a lot of senators and encouraged the good work that's gone on," she said as she left the building and was met by a driving snow. "I know that lots of very positive conversations are underway with lots of members of the Senate and that's just what needs to happen."
President Obama plans to address the Senate caucus on Sunday afternoon, a meeting she said she planned to attend, as well.
HuffPost asked what she thought Obama would tell his party.
"Pass health care," she said.
UPDATE: Conservative Arkansas Democrats Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor joined the liberals on the second floor of the Capitol following the centrist meeting earlier. Snowe didn't join, but said she'd continue talking.
Following the meeting, Pryor declined to get too specific, but did say that a leading proposal involves increasing the ability of the Office of Personnel Management -- which oversees the federal employee health plans -- to negotiate on behalf of individuals and small businesses. Pryor told a HuffPost and an AP reporter that it was unclear how exactly it would be set up, but that it would take the place of the public option managed by the Health and Human Services Secretary.
Lincoln, also interviewed after the meeting, said that the OPM plan would not need additional seed money and would be similar to a proposal she introduced earlier this year called the SHOP Act. She said that she continues to oppose a "government-run plan," but that this proposal would meet the twin goals of keeping down costs and increasing competition. Snowe and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) are cosponsors of the SHOP Act.
The Lincoln proposal appears to be the alternative option that the conservatives and centrists discussed at the earlier meeting. Snowe had said the proposal was both old and new and Lincoln's measure answers that riddle.
It does little, however, to answer liberals' demands for a nationwide public option. Pryor said, however, that the progressive senators they met with were willing to continue discussions and cautioned that it would be several days before a deal was reached.
They plan to meet again Sunday evening after Obama departs.
UPDATE II: On Sunday, Snowe told reporters that the proposal is no longer being considered as an alternative to the public option, but is being looked at on its own merits. The change, she said, took place between Saturday evening and Sunday.