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Could The Public Option Sneak Back In?

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As the Senate gears up for an epic parliamentary duel over the health care reconciliation package this week, Republicans are vowing to attack every weakness they can find. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) told reporters Monday night that he'd been thoroughly studying the bill and planned to raise a number of points of order. He was working with Senate leadership, he said, to craft a strategy to oppose reconciliation.

The point of order would object that a certain line or provision can not be passed using the reconciliation process.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) met with Senate Parliamentarian Alan Frumin Monday and told reporters that he was confident the bill would evade the GOP tactics, but he had not finished going through the full bill.

Nothing is certain until it hits the floor. If the Senate parliamentarian upholds any one of those points and the bill is altered by so much as a deleted comma, it must then go back to the House for a final vote.

That's a scenario Democrats want to avoid and is the justification behind the leadership's decision to urge Democrats to vote against every amendment, even amendments they might otherwise support - such as a public option. "We know the Republicans are likely to offer a lot of amendments, and some of them may be appealing to Democrats, but we have to urge them to stick with the bill," Majority Whip Dick Durbin told reporters earlier in March. "We have to tell people, 'You just have to swallow hard' and say that putting an amendment on this is either going to stop it or slow it down, and we just can't let it happen."

The vote on the public option would be close without Democrats whipping against it. In that face of that opposition, it would likely be a blowout. In December, they managed to persuade 30 Democrats to vote against a bill allowing prescription drug reimportation - even though many of them were public supporters of it.

But if Republicans succeed in altering the bill even slightly, that justification disappears. The House, at that point, will be required to vote on the bill one more time.

And with Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and his pro-life caucus squarely on board as the result of a deal with the White House, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has the votes to pass a public option. There's an easy way to prove that assertion: She passed it in November 220-215 with a public option. Sunday night's version passed 220-211, meaning that four members could peel off and she would still have the needed support.

Any Democrat could introduce a public option amendment in the Senate and it would need a bare majority to pass. Would it have 50 votes? It looks that way, but the one way to find out is to hold the vote without leadership urging members to vote it down.

Democratic aides and members in the House and Senate say that the strategy is too risky, that there's no certainty that the House could get the final bill through again. But ask House Republicans: Betting against Pelosi is a quick way to go broke.

And Senate Republicans would be left to mull over the final irony that it was their own parliamentary obstruction that allowed the public option to slide back in.

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