What to do about Joe

WHAT TO DO ABOUT JOE…. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), refusing to allow a vote on any health care bill that subjects private insurers to any competition at all, told the WSJ yesterday, “I’m going to be stubborn on this.”

Stubborn, he means, in opposing any health-care overhaul that includes a “public option,” or government-run health-insurance plan, as the current bill does. His opposition is strong enough that Mr. Lieberman says he won’t vote to let a bill come to a final vote if a public option is included.

Probe for a catch or caveat in that opposition, and none is visible. Can he support a public option if states could opt out of the plan, as the current bill provides? “The answer is no,” he says in an interview from his Senate office. “I feel very strongly about this.” How about a trigger, a mechanism for including a public option along with a provision saying it won’t be used unless private insurance plans aren’t spreading coverage far and fast enough? No again.

So any version of a public option will compel Mr. Lieberman to vote against bringing a bill to a final vote? “Correct,” he says.

This isn’t exactly new ground, but I think this was Lieberman’s most explicit declaration in opposition to public-option “triggers.” The bottom line is straightforward enough: if even one consumer is given a choice between a private plan and a public plan, Joe Lieberman will work with Republicans to kill health care reform, no matter the consequences for the millions who are counting on this bill to pass.

There’s no reason to believe Lieberman is playing some kind of leverage game; all evidence suggests he’s entirely sincere. The senator is so offended by the notion of public-private competition, he’ll betray anyone and everyone to prevent it — even if Lieberman doesn’t seem to understand the basics of the policy he’s so vehemently against.

With that in mind, should the “trigger” compromise become the focus of negotiations with the center-right, it suggests the road to 60 votes will go through Sen. Olympia Snowe’s (R-Maine) office, not Joe Lieberman’s. Indeed, if Lieberman isn’t willing to listen to reason, evidence, or pleas for compromise, it may very well be time to shift the nature of the talks — I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if Senate Dems simply stopped engaging Lieberman, and went back to figuring out how to make Snowe happy again. When the votes are cast, 60 is 60; whether the final vote comes from Snowe or Lieberman doesn’t matter. (Maybe if Lieberman’s phone stopped ringing, and he no longer felt important, he’d be more willing to engage in good-faith talks.)

It’s also worth watching to see if there’s any talk about consequences for the former Democrat. A few weeks ago, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) sounded open to punishing Lieberman for his deeds: “Let’s see what happens. I don’t think anybody should be filibustering — nobody should be filibustering health care. Either vote it up or vote it down.” I’ve heard very little talk since.

Obviously, we’ve been through this before, and we all know the score — if the party were to strip Lieberman of his committee chairmanship, for example, he’d likely to start caucusing with the Republican minority. If he switched, the Democratic caucus would go from 60 to 59 seats, and the Senate that already seems paralyzed would be even more dysfunctional. Party leaders are just as anxious to avoid this fate now as they were when they handed Lieberman his gavel a year ago.

But would the equation change at all if/when Lieberman betrays his colleagues on the most important domestic policy vote in a generation? Shouldn’t it?