EDITOR'S NOTE: The story below includes references to polling conducted by the firm Research 2000. The reliability and accuracy of Research 2000's polling has since been called into serious question by a report published in June 2010 by a group of statistical analysts.
House progressives organizing to rescue health care reform are pressuring their Senate counterparts to go back to the provision that has most energized the party and a majority of Americans throughout the debate: The public option.
The effort was discussed during a closed-door meeting on Tuesday night, with a faction arguing that the best way to salvage reform is to persuade the Senate to pass the public health insurance option using the budget reconciliation process that needs only a majority vote.
They argued that the current bill before the House, which passed the Senate, lacks the votes needed to pass because pro-life Democrats don't believe the abortion restrictions go far enough and progressive Democrats don't like the lack of a public option, the weak affordability measures or the tax on private insurance. And nobody likes the Cornhusker Kickback, a provision won by Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson that would cover the state's Medicaid bills in perpetuity. Not even Nelson likes it anymore.
So, in order to move health care through the House, Democrats either need to pick up progressives or conservatives. And the budget reconciliation process does not lend itself to altering abortion language reform, because that wouldn't have a direct, substantial impact on the budget.
That leaves progressives as the bloc available to pick up. Their demands -- changes related to the tax on insurance, a Medicaid or Medicare expansion, and a public option -- would likely be allowable using reconciliation. (The Senate parliamentarian would have the final say.)
Two House freshmen, Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.), circulated a letter, looking for signatures, that will be delivered to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Thursday on behalf of the plan, Polis told HuffPost.
Reid is not generally receptive to advice from the lower chamber, but health care reform has stumbled into territory where there is no map.
If Reid and President Obama decide that the House Democrats have a workable plan -- perhaps the only viable plan left, after the New York Times declared that the brakes had been slammed -- they may be able to accomplish it.
Pingree told HuffPost that the pair's proposal was met with excitement from some quarters and skepticism from others. "There are plenty of people who say there's no way we're going to bring it back, but there's nothing predictable about this political year," she said. "Never say never."
House and Senate negotiators were working out the final details of health care reform when the Massachusetts special election deprived the Democratic caucus of the 60 votes it needed to break a GOP filibuster and pass the final bill.
That could lead Democrats to use reconciliation, which requires only 50 votes. Once that decision has been made, deciding to go for the public option is less of a leap.
"It is very likely that the public option could have passed the Senate, if brought up under majority-vote 'budget reconciliation' rules," reads the letter. "While there were valid reasons stated for not using reconciliation before, especially given that some important provisions of health care reform wouldn't qualify under the reconciliation rules, those reasons no longer exist."
The major obstacle to reconciliation has always been the fear that popular insurance reforms would be carved out and ruled unrelated to the budget. But the Senate has already passed those particular reforms. The House could pass them and send them on to the president, then pass the package of reforms that moves through reconciliation.
It's a long-shot, but not impossible. And it's just the kind of aggressive action that voters showed they want in Massachusetts, said Pingree, and have long been supporting in surveys. It's a matter of political survival: "People will lose their seats because they want Congress to deliver what it promises," said Pingree.
Polis said that the response has been "very exciting."
"There's enthusiasm that if a majority of senators are on board with it, then we should go for it," he said. "I think the inclusion of the public option would make that route much more attractive to House Democrats."
Health care reform became less popular, Polis argued, when the public option was taken out but the requirement to buy private insurance or pay a fine remained.
"I think the fading of the public option from the Senate bill really hurt the Democrats' prospects in the Senate [race], because they were seen as following the typical pattern of tax and spend and caving to insurance companies," he said.
Pingree and Polis both noted that Obama's focus on fiscal discipline and cutting spending makes the public option -- which the Congressional Budget Office estimates could trim more than $100 billion from the deficit in ten years -- that much more appealing.
It would also give Democrats something else to run on in 2010.
The night of the Massachusetts election, three liberal groups -- Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America and MoveOn.org -- paid for a poll of a thousand people who voted for Obama in 2008 and either switched to support Republican Scott Brown for Senate or didn't vote. It was conducted by Research 2000.
More than 80 percent of both groups favored a public option.
The poll also upended the conventional understanding of health care's role in the election. A plurality of people who switched to Brown -- 48 -- or didn't vote -- 43 -- said that they opposed the Senate health care bill. But the poll dug deeper and asked people why they opposed it. Among those Brown voters, 23 percent thought it went "too far" -- but 36 percent thought it didn't go far enough and 41 percent said they weren't sure why they opposed it.
Among voters who stayed home and opposed health care, a full 53 percent said they opposed the Senate bill because it didn't go far enough; 39 percent weren't sure and only eight percent thought it went too far.
"The public option," said Polis, "is not dead."
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