Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said on Thursday that she would not include a public option in a health care reconciliation package that the House will send to the Senate.
"We're talking about something that is not going to be part of the legislation," Pelosi said, noting "with sadness" that the public insurance option won't be part of legislation. "I'm quite sad that the public option is not in there," she said.
Earlier Thursday, a spokesman to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the Majority Whip, said Durbin would "aggressively whip" a health care bill that included a public option.
Pelosi, however, put the onus back on the Senate, saying that the chamber didn't have the votes needed for it.
"I'm not having the Senate, which didn't have a public option in its bill, put any of that on our doorstep," she said. "It did not prevail. What we will have in reconciliation will be something that is agreed upon, House and Senate, that they can pass and we can pass... It isn't in there because they don't have the votes."
Progressive activist Adam Green, who's been leading an outside effort to reintroduce the public option into the debate, said that Pelosi's whip count is unconvincing. "When the Senate Whip says he will aggressively whip the House reconciliation bill through the Senate unamended and onto the President's desk, the Speaker doesn't get to say the Senate lacks the votes," said Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "Mark Warner, Tom Harkin, Herb Kohl, Claire McCaskill, and other undeclared senators are not going to vote against the president's top priority, and if Speaker Pelosi refuses to even allow a vote on the public option, then she killed the public option. She needs to step up."
Pelosi is correct that the Senate bill did not include a public option, but when the upper chamber passed its legislation, the vote threshold was at 60 and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) vowed to filibuster it. But under reconciliation, only 50 votes are needed.
Whatever the political reality in the Senate -- and it does appear that the votes exist there -- Pelosi faces her own public-option problems in the House. Even were she to push for a public option, she might not be able to get it through her chamber this time around, despite succeeding the last time. Several Democrats who have backed the bill, and are supporters of the public option, are bucking the Speaker this time, objecting that their restrictive abortion language is not in the legislation.
Pelosi said after the briefing that abortion law changes could not be made in the reconciliation, a process that must stick only to budget matters. That means Pelosi needs to flip 'no' votes who thought that the earlier House bill was too liberal, and adding a public option could complicate that process.
It doesn't help Pelosi that the Obama administration has shown no interest in the public option over the past year.
Pelosi argued that she should not be blamed for the failure to implement the public option, charging that she has been a supporter of single-payer health care before most reporters at her briefing were born. She also attempted to put a positive gloss on it.
"While we may not have the final version we have the purpose of the public option," she said, saying that tough rules on insurers and health insurance exchanges will increase competition and keep down costs. "I believe we have a very strong bill."
The public option has shown over the last year, however, that no matter how many times it seemed dead, political pressure forced it back into the debate in Washington. Several Senate Democratic candidates from southern states are campaigning on their support for the public option, and it continues to remain wildly popular among Democrats and popular with a wide margin of Americans in general.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has said he will try to add a public option as an amendment to the health care bill, but Sen. Durbin's office has basically announced it will fight such a maneuver.
"The reason is simple," Shoemaker wrote to Green. "There can be no amendments - good or bad - to the reconciliation bill once the House passes it and sends it to the Senate. The House will not do step one (passing the Senate healthcare bill in the first place) if they do not have assurances that the fixes they want (i.e., the fixes in their reconciliation bill) will be passed unchanged by the Senate."
The next opportunity to pass a public option through reconciliation begins in the next few weeks, when Congress takes up its new budget. If it includes reconciliation language allowing for a public option, the battle can begin all over again.