03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Harry Reid's Disingenuous Game

According to emails exchanged between the Senate Majority Leader's office and the Huffington Post, Harry Reid keeps offering progressive health care proposals that he knows, in advance, will be filibustered by Joe Lieberman and will be cut from the final bill. Are the two working together to mollify conservative Democrats like Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln by killing the public option, Medicare buy-in and other progressive reforms in a way that lets Reid retain his "progressive" credentials?

On Oct. 26, Reid (D-NV), who previously had displayed more alacrity for compromise than allegiance to principle, surprised progressives by unveiling a health care bill that contained a public option. Including the public option, rather than a stiff trigger, guaranteed that moderate Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) would support her party's filibuster of the entire reform package, and meant that Reid absolutely, mathematically needed the vote of conservative former Democrat Joe Lieberman (I-Conn) to defeat the Republican filibuster and win passage of health care reform.

When Reid announced his support for public option, therefore, I assumed he had obtained Lieberman's support in advance. And, indeed, he appears to have enlisted Lieberman's agreement to at least bring the bill to the floor for debate. But the next day, Lieberman rocked Washington by announcing he would join the GOP filibuster of any bill that contained a public option -- or even, for that matter, a trigger for a public option. By doing this, he made himself the most important senator in the universe -- the senator who could ask for anything at all in exchange for his vote, and get it. Lieberman, I wrote at the time, had just "stolen Reid's candy."

At first, I assumed Lieberman had misled or sandbagged Reid. Reid knew that backing the public option meant he needed the support of every single member of the Democratic caucus, including Lieberman's; he knew that Lieberman hails from the home state of most of America's insurance companies, and had expressed serious doubts about a public option that would compete with them; he also knew that Lieberman stands almost no chance of being re-elected by Connecticut's left-leaning voters in 2012, and so has every incentive to steer to the right. Of course, Reid must have thought he had Lieberman's vote, right? Isn't it unthinkable that Reid could have so firmly committed to the public option if he secretly knew he could muster only 59 votes for its passage?

When reporters asked him about Lieberman's announcement, Reid told them that Lieberman was the least of his problems -- when, from all indications, Lieberman was the greatest problem Reid had. That statement might have been merely an effort to put the best face on things, to minimize Lieberman's betrayal -- if that's what Lieberman's announcement was.

As it turns out, however, Lieberman's stance on killing public option was not a betrayal, nor was it unexpected. To the contrary, it's what Reid's office knew he would do.

I know this because Reid's office told me, in an exchange of emails, that Lieberman's position was not a surprise to Reid -- that Reid knew, ahead of time, that Lieberman would kill any reform that contained anything resembling a public option and that he therefore would have to drop the public option in the end in order to secure passage of the larger bill.

Chew on that a sec.

Harry Reid, who is facing a tough re-election battle in Nevada and who has been singularly uninspiring to the base Democrats whose support he needs to win re-election, announced a surprisingly progressive reform bill that he knew, in advance, would not win passage unless he later amended it to remove the public option that made it so progressive.

My colloquy with Jim Manley, Reid's Spokesman/Senior Communications Advisor, began when I telephoned Reid's press office shortly after Lieberman's "kill public option" announcement and asked what communications Reid and Lieberman had had before Reid announced the contours of his original, progressive bill. Manley answered by email:

Senator Reid talked about this to the press today.
Nothing he [Lieberman] said came as a surprise.

I followed up:

What has me scratching my head is that if Sen Reid knew Lieberman would filibuster anything w/ a pub opt, then I doubt he'd have rejected Snowe's triggers so firmly. I was thinking maybe Lieberman promised procedural support getting bill to floor, intentionally leaving Reid w/ misimpression about having support on cloture too.

Is that what happened (L misleading R), or did Reid know L's position before yesterday's announcement about opt-out?

Manley answered indirectly:

There is at least a couple of weeks between now and when we vote.

On Nov. 2, The Hill's Alexander Bolton quoted "Reid staffers" as saying that Reid and Lieberman had secretly agreed that despite his bluster, Lieberman would vote for cloture in the end -- the exact agreement I had asked Manley about on Oct. 27. A Lieberman spokesman, colorfully, had denied any such agreement, /">saying, "If you believe this story is true, you will also believe that I am replacing A-Rod in Game Six of the Series."

I asked Manley about this again on Nov. 3:

Back at the start of this email thread, when I was asking what discussions Sen. Reid had with Sen. Lieberman before Reid decided to run with the public option & opt-out, you indicated nothing Lieberman said about filibustering the public option came as a surprise but that Reid still wasn't too worried. Given today's back-and-forth ... about whether or not Lieberman has promised Reid he'll support cloture in the very end, I'm wondering again whether there were some early discussions about Lieberman's path -- for example, that he might talk tough for Cigna's sake but that Reid didn't need to worry about him doing the right thing in the end.

Was there something along those lines? Not necc. a promise, but enough of a hint that Reid felt safe moving forward without Snowe?

His answer was straightforward:

Hi-nothing new here. My comments earlier pretty much summed up the situation.

Reid's office also seems to have known that Lieberman was serious about opposing public option rather than, say, holding it hostage to get earmarks or other unrelated benefits the way Mary Landrieu (D-LA) has done. On Nov. 3 I asked Manley:

Can you at least comment on this: assuming there's horse trading in the works, is there more than one horse? Lieberman claims his hangup is public option itself -- but is there any indication that something (HCR-related or otherwise) other than killing pubopt might satisfy him?

He answered:

Not that I am aware of.

Over a month later, we now seem to be repeating the pattern. Although Reid is declining to provide any details of the compromise health care deal currently being scored by the Congressional Budget Office, we do know that one of its main components is a plan to let some people under age 65 "buy in" to the Medicare program. Many prominent, pro-public option Democrats, including House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean, are guardedly optimistic about the Medicare expansion -- but not Joe Lieberman, who said Thursday:

"I am increasingly troubled about the proposal. I am worried about what impact it will have on the Medicare program's fiscal viability and also what effect it will have on the premiums paid by people benefiting from Medicare now and whether the whole thing is viable. If you separate it from Medicare, it will be an extremely expensive program."

The secret compromise also reportedly contains a "trigger" implementing a public option if insurers don't meet certain standards -- but Thursday, Lieberman also told TPM's Brian Beutler that he would filibuster a trigger, even a trigger that's almost certain not to be used.

This latest incarnation of the bill is intended as a compromise between liberals and conservative Democrats, specifically engineered by Reid to secure exactly the 60 votes needed for cloture. Although Lieberman was not part of the "Gang of 10" that negotiated the bill, he remains the most elusive 60th vote, so, again, it seems unthinkable that the deal was hammered out without his input. Just as I did in October, I asked Reid's office on Dec. 9 whether they had consulted Lieberman along the way -- and Manley confirmed that, yes, they had. I asked:

Has Sen. Reid had any contact with Sen. Lieberman, whether before, during or after the Gang of 10 negotiations, indicating whether or not he will filibuster the compromise plan?

Manley answered:

He has been talking to senator lieberman throughout this process

So Reid announced a compromise that would yield 60 votes -- and consulted with Lieberman in arriving at that compromise -- yet here is Lieberman once again, loudly proclaiming his opposition to the last remnants of progressive reform in the weak-tea compromise and demanding that they be removed before reform's dregs are put to a vote.

Reid keeps proposing liberal provisions that he knows, in advance, cannot possibly pass. There are two possible explanations for his behavior:

1. Reid is naive and, like George W. Bush gazing deeply into Vladimir Putin's eyes, actually trusts Lieberman to do the right thing in the end and support a public option. That always was an unlikely possibility -- despite his country-boy demeanor, Reid is no naif, and he knows Lieberman well -- and, as events have unfolded, it's no longer even a possibility, because if Reid truly believed Lieberman was going to repent, or if they had a secret deal that Lieberman would come around in the end, then Reid would not have stripped the public option out of the bill. By bowing to Lieberman's demands, Reid has proved that he believes Lieberman is serious about killing public option --and yet Reid keeps pretending to sincerely believe that somehow he might have been able to muster 60 votes for its passage.

This leaves the second possibility:

2. Reid always intended to negotiate away the public option and other reforms, but lacked the courage to do so openly. Luckily for him, however, he also knew that Lieberman would play the "bad cop" to his good cop and would demand that everything progressive in the health care reform bill, such as the public option, Medicare expansion, and even triggers, be removed. They may have even had an agreement to that effect -- which would explain rumors of a deal between the two, and Reid's unconcern when Lieberman announced his support for a filibuster.

If Reid always intended to win the votes of other conservative Democrats like Landrieu and Ben Nelson by killing the public option and other reforms, he needed to find a way to do so in a way that would not alienate more progressive members of his caucus, jeopardize his leadership position or hamper his chances of re-election. Joe Lieberman, who is Reid's friend and who no longer cares what any Democrat thinks of him, has been a great help to Reid in this regard: Reid has burnished his progressive credentials by pretending to support truly progressive reforms, in the sure and certain knowledge that Lieberman would do his dirty work for him by demanding concessions that Reid, "reluctantly," would then "grudgingly" grant.

In other words, their agreement (express or unstated) wasn't that Lieberman would come around; it was that Reid would fold. And if the game was played right, progressive senators like Feingold, Sanders, Brown, Franken, and Merkley wouldn't realize they were being manipulated, and in the interest of "party unity" and in their desire to win some sort of "reform" they would succumb to the momentum instead of demanding that public option be retained.

The most frustrating thing about watching this game unfold is that if just one or two Democratic senators realized how they were being manipulated, and mounted a serious filibuster for the public option, the jig would be up. Those liberal votes against cloture would become as important as Lieberman's, and Reid would have to pander to the Left the same way, until now, he has pandered to the Right -- and he could still pass meaningful health care reform using the budget reconciliation process, which isn't subject to filibuster. Roland Burris (D-IL) has announced such a strategy, but so far few people, inside the Senate or out, are taking him seriously, partly because he is considered a pretender to his seat (he was appointed by discredited former Illinois governor Rod Blagoevich) and partly because, as one DC-watcher told me, "no senator moves alone. Threats are only taken serious when they come in blocs."

If Burris' filibuster threat holds firm, then a minor figure could become an historic one -- the footnote-to-history who made history by saving the public option. If Burris folds under the pressure, however -- which is likely if no one else joins his lonely protest -- then Reid will have obtained what he has always wanted, and what Joe Lieberman has dutifully helped him obtain: a watered-down but passable pro-industry law that lets Reid pretend, falsely, that he fought seriously to obtain better for the American people.