Public Option Watch

PUBLIC OPTION WATCH…. Under the circumstances, the chances of passing a health care reform bill with a public option in the Senate will hinge on a dozen or so senators, whose support will make or break the provision. As of last week, two of the 59 senators in the Democratic caucus — Lieberman and Landrieu — were definite (or near-definite) opponents of a public option.

This week, the on-the-fence senators are clarifying matters a little further. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) or Arkansas, who just found out she’s facing a credible, top-tier conservative Republican opponent next year, now opposes a public option.

“For some in my caucus, when they talk about a public option they’re talking about another entitlement program, and we can’t afford that right now as a nation,” Lincoln said in a speech to the Elder Law Task Force at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

Lincoln has said previously she would support whatever health care plan worked, but she indicated Tuesday that a plan including an expensive, government-funded health insurance program would not get her vote.

“I’m not going to vote for a bill that’s not deficit-neutral, and I’m not going to vote for a bill that doesn’t do something about curbing the cost in the out years, because it would be pointless

… I would not support a solely government-funded public option. We can’t afford that,” Lincoln told reporters before her speech.

This might be a good time to note that bloggers seem to be the only people in the country who realize that a public option would be cheaper than the alternative. If Lincoln is concerned about what “we can afford,” she should be an enthusiastic champion of the public option. I suspect she knows this, but doesn’t quite have the courage to explain this to her enraged constituents.

Other than Lincoln, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) seems iffy on the public option, though her in-state colleague, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), is an ardent supporter of the policy.

Sen. Michael Bennett (D-Colo.) was considered a “maybe,” but he’s making it clear he’s a “yes” on the public option. David Sirota argues that this is the result of a credible primary challenger, and I think that’s absolutely correct.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has said he supports a public option, but as of yesterday, he’s no longer willing to say whether he backs the measure or not. This probably isn’t a good sign.

And then there’s Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who offered a muddled position on a public option late last week. Yesterday, Reid’s office clarified matters, explaining that the Majority Leader envisions a public option that would be administered in part by private entities, though the HHS would still set the policies.

Of course, there’s one point that’s always worth emphasizing when this comes up. It matters whether these senators support a public option, but it matters just as much whether these senators would also support a filibuster of a reform package that includes a public option. It’s one thing to oppose the policy; it’s another to vote with Republicans and prevent the Senate from even voting on the reform package at all.