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

Rattlesnakes, Progressive Bluffing and The Public Option

Baby rattlesnakes kill faster than their adult counterparts.

The little guys release all their venom in a single bite, while adult snakes use a small dose initially, having learned it's best to save lethal attacks for the end of a fight.

In Washington, the oldest snakes in the health care debate finally emerged this week. After months of dithering and slithering, the insurance industry is going in for the kill.

In the industry's new "frontal assault" on reform, as The Washington Post dubbed the effort, politicians must now counter more negative ads and voters have to slog through another round of specious fear-mongering.

While the days of "death panels" and "illegals" have passed, the crude code words are giving way to a decidedly highbrow misinformation campaign.

The new industry-backed health care report -- which marks a final, official rejection of President Barack Obama's conciliatory industry stance -- runs 19 pages with 17 charts and 22 footnotes.

It warns that insurers could jack up premiums by 111 percent -- a prospect that should actually drive people toward stronger reform proposals, as Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) noted Monday.

It overshoots the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office cost estimates by $7,000 per person -- with a quirky methodology that was swiftly panned by The New Republic and The Washington Post.

The report was written to confuse, not convince. And it reveals an important shift as the health care fight enters this lethal homestretch.

"The insurance industry is getting scared," concluded health policy expert Ezra Klein, in response to the report's release. The insurance industry spent months presenting an aura of "quiet constructiveness," he noted, only to launch a sudden "broadside" that rocked the Senate Finance Committee and "shocked" the administration. Couple that with how Obama aides were "shocked" by progressives' demand for a public option, and you might wonder what's wrong with the political thermometer at the White House.

Those two surprises are strategically similar, by the way. Both camps say they will thwart legislation that fails to meet their conditions.

The difference, of course, is that Washington knows the insurance industry is serious about obstruction. (Many observers were counting on it before the industry went negative.)

The Congressional Progressive Caucus, by contrast, loudly pledged to oppose any bill without a public option, but its resolve remains an open question.

"The weakness of progressives among House Democrats," observed David Waldman, a former congressional aide and liberal writer, "has always been that their threats are not viewed as credible."

Waldman cheered progressive members for shifting that perception "by insisting that no bill without a serious public option can get their vote." If the House does force a public option bill into conference negotiations, he argues, then the political pressure shifts to (more conservative) senators. They would have to choose between compromise and killing the entire proposal.

Darcy Burner, who has been huddling with members of Congress as head of the newly minted ProgressiveCongress.org, stresses that the liberal wing is "not bluffing" this time. "We don't have to bluff. Health care reform can't pass the House without progressive votes, and we are fighting for a [public option] policy that is supported by an overwhelming majority of the American public," Darcy said in an interview.

That promise was reinforced by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Progressive Caucus co-chairman, who says the caucus will not "blink" or "roll over" in this standoff. Last week, Grijalva joined five members of Congress in a private Hill summit convened by Burner's team for more than 30 organizations, including an alliance of faith and minority groups that have often felt sidelined in Washington's health care policymaking.

Once you aggregate all these countervailing threats, it's hard to understand Washington's conventional wisdom that "moderate" members of Congress are the only ones holding the cards to scuttle reform. The insurance lobby fills that bill now, too -- whether you already knew it or had to be shocked and awed into the realization this week. So does the Progressive Caucus, which insists it will never opt in to a public option that is merely opt-in.

The dispositive question is whether progressives' bark is worse than their bite. In Washington, of course, the bite is always most important. Just ask the snakes.

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This column is from Politico.
Ari Melber Twitters news and politics at Twitter.com/AriMelber