The White House should take ‘yes’ for an answer

THE WHITE HOUSE SHOULD TAKE ‘YES’ FOR AN ANSWER…. Nearly everyone watching the debate over health care reform was taken aback late yesterday, puzzled by the purported White House strategy on the public option.

By all indications, Harry Reid has done some impressive heavy-lifting this week, and is this close to locking up 60 votes for a public option with a state opt-out compromise. When Reid relayed the good news to the White House, the president, according a TPM report, not only wasn’t thrilled, he began pushing back in the other direction, expressing skepticism about the compromise measure that’s generating momentum and touting Olympia Snowe’s “trigger” idea, which isn’t nearly as good as the opt-out.

So, what’s going on? Ezra Klein had a very helpful item yesterday afternoon.

On Thursday night, Reid went over to the White House for a talk with the president. The conversation centered on Reid’s desire to put Schumer’s national opt-out plan into the base bill. White House officials were not necessarily pleased, and they made that known. Everyone agrees that they didn’t embrace Reid’s new strategy. Everyone agrees that the White House wants Snowe on the bill, feels the trigger offers a safer endgame, and isn’t convinced by Reid’s math.

But whether officials expressed a clear preference for the trigger, or were just worried about the potential for 60 votes, is less clear. One staffer briefed on the conversation says “the White House basically told us, ‘We hope you guys know what you’re doing.'”

Now, it’s worth noting the White House has tried to knock down the TPM report. Dan Pfeiffer, a top White House aide on health care policy, told Marc Ambinder, “The report is false.”

We’ll know more as this unfolds further; right now, there are enough players with enough competing strategies that it’s hard to know exactly who wants what and why, and with what timeframe in mind.

That said, I think Jonathan Cohn gets this just right: “The White House wants a public option but it wants a bill even more. It remains convinced that keeping Snowe on board is the surest way to get that. And Snowe wants a trigger. The administration understands that the politics of the public option have shifted, so they are listening to discussion of alternatives. But they’re asking a lot of tough questions of those proposing these alternatives. And they’re not rushing to change their gameplan.”

And as much as I hope the White House seizes the best available opportunity, I understand why the president and his team are hesitant here. The goal line is in sight, and they just want to cross it. Indeed, I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the White House’s fears about getting a bill done. If the choice were between a) a good health care bill with a triggered public option; and b) watching the entire reform initiative die, it would be entirely reasonable for the president and his team to cling to what some have begun calling the “Snowe trigger.”

But therein lies the point: that’s not the choice here. By all accounts, Reid is on the verge of delivering the right bill with the right number of votes. Obama may not be sure that Reid can get and keep 60 votes — it’s what “We hope you guys know what you’re doing” is all about — and the skepticism is fair. But with a little help from the White House, the goal is well within reach.

Mr. President, take “yes” for an answer.