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Public Option Support Surging In Senate

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Support for the public health insurance option is surging in the Senate. It began with three freshman Democrats in the House, Alan Grayson (Fla.), Chellie Pingree (Maine) and Jared Polis (Colo.). The campaign has taken place almost exclusively online.

Grayson organized an online petition calling for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to include a public option in health care reform using reconciliation, process that requires only fifty votes plus a tie-breaker from Vice President Joe Biden. Pingree and Polis persuaded more than 100 House members to sign on to a letter urging Reid to do the same.

The entire effort has been organized on the outside by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America and Credo Action. The members behind the movement have been rewarded by online donors.

On Tuesday, four Senate Democrats joined the effort, urging Reid to pass a public option using reconciliation. The group was led by Sen. Michael Bennet, facing a primary challenge in Colorado. Sen. Kirstin Gillibran, facing a primary in New York, was also one of the initial four. Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Jeff Merkley (Oregon) rounded out the foursome.

Reid isn't the only Senator who could re-introduce the public option into the debate. Under the rules of reconciliation, any Senator can bring it to the floor as an amendment.

The remarkable thing about the surge in support is that it has happened during a week when Congress is in recess and reporters have a hard time reaching senators. When they return on Monday, look for the number to begin rising again

We've been following the growth of the movement and updating below as more and more Democrats sign on to the call to action. Find out where your senators stand here.

UPDATE: Tuesday, 3:24 PM -- Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told reporters that he backs the Bennet letter and intends to sign on, if he hasn't already. Levin is chairman of the Armed Services Committee and joins several other committee chairmen on the list.

"I think I've already signed that letter, or I'll sign one like it," he said. "The only question to me is not whether I favor it -- I do -- but whether or not the rules of reconciliation will permit it or not, because you can't do policy stuff as its main purpose. It's got to be financial stuff. So if you can do it by reconciliation, I'm all for it.

Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) have also signed on.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), a huge public option booster, meanwhile, is not behind the effort.

UPDATE: Monday, 11:50 AM -- Count Russ Feingold in. The Wisconsin Democrat told local reporters over the weekend that he was supporting the public-option-through-reconciliation effort. From the Lacrosse Tribune:

U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold said Saturday he supports the movement within the Senate to pass a health care bill with a public option under reconciliation rules, which require a simple majority without a filibuster.

"According to the estimates, the public option was going to save $25 billion," Feingold said, by competing with high insurance company premiums.

UPDATE: Monday, 10:34 AM -- Jacob Hacker, Darcy Burner, Jane Hamsher and Adam Green weigh in on Obama's new plan.

UPDATE: Monday, 10:00 AM -- After a week when the public health insurance option gained serious momentum, President Obama decided not to include one of the most popular elements of reform in the plan he intends to present to a bipartisan group of lawmakers Thursday.

The Obama plan bridges differences between the Senate and House plans on issues both large and small, but when it comes to the public option -- the House bill includes one; the Senate doesn't -- Obama is entirely silent.

Last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow that Obama would "absolutely" fight for a public option if Senate leadership decided to go for it. "[I]f it's part of the decision of leadership to move forward, absolutely," Sebelius said. "The president said from the outset he thought that was a great way to provide cost reduction and competition moving forward, but if that is not the choice of the majority moving forward, I think there are other ways to get there."

Since then, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he would work with his colleagues to find the votes needed for it; Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third ranking Democrat, pushed for it to be included; and Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, joined in the call.

It wasn't enough to persuade Obama to get behind the immensely popular issue. After months of watching Obama say generally that he supports the public option, while doing little to see it implemented into law, backers of the idea were unsurprised it was left out of his final offer.

"We didn't expect one," said Darcy Burner, head of the Progressive Caucus Policy Foundation.

The reinsertion of the public option fired up a demoralized Democratic base last week, giving the health care reform effort an extra push as Obama tries to drag it across the finish line. But if the final bill is to include a public option, leaders in Congress and outside organizations advocating on its behalf will need to do the work apparently without the president involved.

"Congress and the people of the United States will have to lead in truly taking on the insurance companies," Burner concluded.

UPDATE: Saturday, 4:39 PM -- Another prominent member of Senate Democratic leadership has now endorsed an idea to pass a public option for insurance coverage using reconciliation.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) became the 20th Senator to sign a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) urging the Nevada Democrat to put a government run insurance option through the parliamentary process that would allow it an up-or-down vote.

Menendez, in his role as DSCC chair, must look at policy decisions in terms of the effect on Democrats' political chances in 2010. That both he and his predecessor, Chuck Schumer, have signed the letter is a signal to fellow Democrats that it is the smart political play.

Mendendez's office confirmed his signing of the letter to the Huffington Post on Saturday afternoon.

UPDATE: Friday, 5:39 PM -- Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Penn.) signed the public-option letter Friday afternoon, his spokeswoman, Kate Kelly, tells HuffPost.

UPDATE: Friday, 4:25 PM -- Reid is getting behind the effort. "Senator Reid has always and continues to support the public option as a way to drive down costs and create competition," said aide Rodell Mollineau in a statement provided to the Huffington Post. "That is why he included the measure in his original health care proposal. If a decision is made to use reconciliation to advance health care, Senator Reid will work with the White House, the House, and members of his caucus in an effort to craft a public option that can overcome procedural obstacles and secure enough votes."

UPDATE: Friday, 3:17 PM -- MoveOn got into the action Friday afternoon, blasting out the below email to its members, asking them to urge President Obama to include a public option in the health care plan he is set to unveil.

Dear MoveOn member,

Big news out of Washington: President Obama plans to unveil his preferred version of health care legislation before next week's bipartisan health care summit.

The public option was given up for dead, but in the last week, first a trickle, and now a flood of Democrats have been calling for it to be in the final "reconciliation" bill.

It'll be a whole new ballgame for the public option if President Obama throws his weight behind it too.

Can you call the White House today and urge the president to include a strong public option in his health care package?

Here's where to call:

The White House
202-456-1111

Then, please report your call by clicking here.

Most pundits and Washington insiders gave the public option up for dead in December. But they're being proven wrong (again).

Under a process called "reconciliation," the Senate can pass the public option with a simple majority--so it's not subject to threats from conservative Democrats. And this week, 18 senators signed a letter to Senate Majority Leader Reid urging him to bring the public option up for a majority vote, following 119 House Democrats who sent a similar letter earlier this month.

What's more, yesterday Obama's Secretary of Health and Human Services said the president would support the Senate if they decide to bring the public option back into the fold.

The public option has support from a majority of Americans and in both houses of Congress--and just makes good sense for helping lower skyrocketing health care costs and providing choice for more Americans. We've been fighting for it since this debate began, and we need the president to step up and fight too.

UPDATE: Friday, 10:00 AM -- MSNBC highlighted the renewed push for the public option Thursday night, with both Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow weighing in.

Maddow hosted Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and asked her if the president would fight for the public option, which 18 senators were by then calling for.

"I think if it's--certainly, if it's part of the decision of leadership to move forward, absolutely," Sebelius said. "The president said from the outset he thought that was a great way to provide cost reduction and competition moving forward, but if that is not the choice of the majority moving forward, I think there are other ways to get there."

Olbermann, meanwhile, hosted Sam Stein and the two counted votes, making educated guesses as to where those who are undeclared might come down, coming up with a possible 52 votes, two more than needed.

WATCH Maddow and Sebelius:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

UPDATE: Thursday, 5:26 PM -- Joe Shoemaker, a spokesman for Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat, said that the Majority Whip has a policy of not signing on to letters sent to leadership since, after all, he's a member of leadership. "That would be like sending a letter to himself," said Shoemaker, adding, "Durbin has a pretty clear record on his support for a public option."

He said that Durbin has yet to take a public position on whether the bill should be moved through reconciliation and wasn't immediately available. He has been traveling in Sudan and elsewhere in Africa for the last several days.

UPDATE: Thursday, 4:56 PM -- The White House is declining to comment on the push to reinsert the public option into the debate.

UPDATE: Thursday, 4:44 PM -- Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a fairly conservative member, has signed the letter, according to organizers and to a spokesperson for Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who's leading the charge.

UPDATE: Thursday, 4:40 PM -- Sen. Chris Dodd's (D-Conn.) office released a statement today that reiterates the senator's support for a public option for insurance coverage but doesn't touch the issue of whether he'd like to see the proposal passed using reconciliation.

"Senator Dodd is and always has been a strong supporter of the public option," the statement reads. "It was under his leadership that the HELP committee passed a bill with a strong public option last summer. And he will continue his work to get comprehensive health care reform passed."

It seems likely that the senator doesn't want to get ahead of the process. An upcoming health care summit with the White House and ongoing health care negotiations between Democratic leadership make discussion of reintroducing the public plan slightly premature. But it would be bizarre, if not highly unthinkable, to see Dodd oppose reconciliation to pass the provision after pushing it through committee and restating his support.

UPDATE: Thursday, 3:15 PM -- Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, is backing the effort. Schumer's re-entry into the public option fight gives it a major boost. Schumer, as head of the party's campaign efforts in 2006 and 2008, elected one in six of those now in the caucus and is trusted for his political judgment. If Schumer thinks the public option effort is a political winner, his colleagues will take note.

Schumer made his announcement in a message to his supporters, obtained by HuffPost.

Dear XX,

As you know, I've been committed to a strong public option throughout the entire health care reform process.

First it was in the Senate bill, then it was out. But now, thanks to the tenacity of a group of four Democratic Senators -- Michael Bennet (CO), Sherrod Brown (OH), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), and Jeff Merkley (OR) -- there is a renewed push to create a public option as part of health care reform.

I just added my name to their effort to pass a public option through the reconciliation process, and I wanted you to be the first to know.

This is far from a done deal, but it's an opportunity to break through the obstructionism Republicans have pushed for the past year.

Let's keep fighting,

Chuck Schumer

UPDATE: Thursday, 2:49 PM -- For leading the public option effort, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) is under attack from conservative editorial boards and Republicans in Colorado.

In response, the groups helping organize outside support for the effort released a poll showing support for the public option in Colorado and asked local residents to write Bennet and thank him for the effort.

UPDATE: Thursday, 12:23 PM -- The Las Vegas Sun reports that while Nevada voters are opposed to the previous health care bill, they support moving it through by using reconciliation.

See the poll here.

UPDATE: Thursday, 11:43 AM -- Adrianne Marsh, a spokesperson for Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who is leading the effort, says that there are now 16 signatures on the letter calling for the public option to be moved through the Senate under reconciliation. The most recent to sign, said Marsh, is Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).

UPDATE: Thursday, 11:21 AM -- "Senator Mikulski has signed on to that letter," says Rachel MacKnight, a spokeswoman to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), up for reelection in 2010. Mikulski is a veteran lawmaker and chairwoman of a HELP subcommittee.

UPDATE: Thursday, 10:05 AM -- Organizers of the effort say that Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) have now signed on, bringing the number to 13.

UPDATE: Wednesday, 9:39 PM -- Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) are the latest to indicate support for the use of reconciliation to pass health care reform legislation that includes a public option.

The Minnesota Independent published part of a prepared statement from Klobuchar:

I would want to make sure that the bill contains the Medicare care cost reform measures included in the existing bill. I am also supportive of the President's efforts to forge a bipartisan agreement. We must reduce health care costs for the people of this country.

I support the House bill version of the public option which is based on negotiated rates. I do not support a public option based on Medicare rates because it exacerbates geographic disparities that already hurt Minnesota.

Susan Sullam, a spokeswoman for Sen. Cardin said Wednesday that "Senator Cardin has always been for a strong public option. He also has long thought reconciliation was a viable option for passing strong health care reform."

Neither Klobuchar nor Cardin appear ready to sign a letter penned by by four other senators endorsing both the public option and the use of reconciliation. Eleven senators have signed the the letter.

----

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) became the 11th Senator to sign on to a new effort by Democrats to press Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to pass a public option for insurance coverage using reconciliation, her office confirmed to the Huffington Post on Wednesday.

The California Democrat joins a list of mostly progressive members to offer her late-stage support for the government run plan. In a letter to Reid on Tuesday a quartet of Democrats penned urged Reid to pass the proposal through parliamentary procedures that allow a simple up-or-down vote.

The senators outlined their rationale for supporting the public option in their letter:

We respectfully ask that you bring for a vote before the full Senate a public health insurance option under budget reconciliation rules.

There are four fundamental reasons why we support this approach - its potential for billions of dollars in cost savings; the growing need to increase competition and lower costs for the consumer; the history of using reconciliation for significant pieces of health care legislation; and the continued public support for a public option.

In putting her name among the signatories Feinstein expands the pool of senators pushing for a public plan beyond the progressive wing and those lawmakers facing primary challenges in the 2010 midterm elections. The California Democrat has been a supporter of the proposal from the start, though not a particularly vocal one. The recent news that the largest insurer in her home state, Anthem Blue Cross, was raising premiums on its customers by as much as 39 percent played a role in her decision.

"I can think of no better example of why we need health insurance reform," she said of the rate-hike news, "and this kind of behavior is a stark reminder of why any reform plan should establish a rate authority to keep insurance rates affordable."

The list of Senators currently signing the letter includes Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Michael Bennet (D-Col.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Pat Leahy (D-VT), Roland Burris (D-Ill.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate health committee, isn't yet signing on to the effort, but said through a spokeswoman that he "has always strongly supported the public option and will continue to fight for comprehensive health care reform."