Lay of the Land, Part I

LAY OF THE LAND, PART I…. There’s been plenty of activity on the Hill since late yesterday on health care reform, so let’s take stock of where we are now. We’ll tackle the Senate first, and the House in the next post.

The Reid/Baucus/Dodd negotiations continue, with updates for the rest of the Senate Democratic caucus, though everyone involved is being tight lipped about developments. By most indications, the discussions are focusing on the easier elements first — providing a foundation of measures that everyone seems to agree on — and working their way up to the more contentious provisions.

During a press briefing in the afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) kinda sorta made some news.

Asked Tuesday whether the talks were leaning “toward or against” a public option, Reid picked option 3. “We’re leaning toward talking about a public option,” he said. “We have — no decision has been made. We had a — not a long discussion last night on public option. I’ve had a number of meetings in my office dealing with Democrats and Republicans on the public option aspect of it. And when the decision’s made to send this on to the [Congressional Budget Office], I will have made a decision as to what we’re going to do with the public option. It’s not done yet.”

The notion that Senate leaders are “leaning toward talking about” the idea generated some chuckles, but it may be more encouraging than it appears. As Ezra explained, “The negotiators can do one of two things with the public option. Figure out a compromise to put in the bill during the negotiations phase, or ignore the issue completely and let it get decided on the floor. In other words, they can talk about it or they can decide against talking about it. This quote suggests that they’re leaning towards figuring out the issue in negotiations rather than leaving it to the floor. That’s a big win for public option advocates. If they get something in during negotiations, opponents will need to muster 60 votes to remove it on the floor. If the public option has the 52 supporters that Sen. Tom Harkin estimates, then that’s impossible.”

There remains plenty of optimism in some corners. Harkin told MSNBC last night, “I’m telling you, we’re going to have a public option in this bill.” Salon‘s Mike Madden added that “momentum … seems to be shifting toward the public option, even if it’s shifting slowly.”

Elsewhere in the Senate, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, the chamber’s most conservative Democrat, who has been strongly opposed to a public option, signaled a willingness to support the measure if it were watered down a bit, with either an opt-out or a trigger.

Colorado Sens. Mark Udall (D) and Michael Bennet (D), meanwhile, also spoke up yesterday, urging senators to commit to letting the Senate vote, up or down, on a reform bill with a public option. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont, who caucuses with the majority, also continues to push this message: “I would hope that [President Obama] would remind every member of the Democratic caucus that the function of the Republican Party — which the American people are very clearly seeing — is obstructionism and is saying no in the midst of a terrible, terrible health care crisis. So what the president — and all of us — should be asking is every member of the Democratic caucus to vote yes to stop Republican filibusters.”