White House inclined to pay Lieberman’s ransom

WHITE HOUSE INCLINED TO PAY LIEBERMAN’S RANSOM…. Joe Lieberman has a gun to health care reform’s head, and is demanding tidy sum. The White House has reportedly sent word to the hostage negotiators: “Pay the man.”

The White House is encouraging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to cut a deal with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and eliminate the proposed Medicare expansion in the health reform bill, according to an official close to the negotiations. […]

Lieberman threw health care reform into doubt Sunday when he told Reid that he would filibuster the bill if it allowed Americans ages 55 to 64 to purchase coverage in Medicare. His comments on CBS’s “Face the Nation” set off a series of private meetings Sunday between the Senate leadership and top White House aides, including Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who encouraged Reid to cut the deal with Lieberman, the official said.

This isn’t especially surprising. Indeed, from the White House’s perspective, it was probably wasn’t too tough a call: the main obstacle to passing a bill is Joe Lieberman. The quickest, most efficient way to resolve the standoff is to give Lieberman what he wants*. And the main difference between what Lieberman wants and the Senate Democratic bill as of a week ago is a weakened public option with a state opt out that’s been so watered down it may not be especially effective anyway.

For that matter, officials are likely looking ahead — if a good bill fails, reform is dead for 20 years. If a bill reflecting Lieberman’s demands succeeds, it creates a foundation that can be built upon going forward.

It’s no doubt what President Obama and other administration officials will tell progressive lawmakers: this bill is the beginning, not the end, but if it dies, everyone’s screwed. Policymakers can work on adding a public option, expanding Medicare, expanding Medicaid, boosting subsidies, and strengthening the exchange after the bill comes becomes law and everyone is brought into the system. But if the effort fails in this Congress, we take no steps forward, and we get further away from the goal.

The White House will also likely remind progressive lawmakers that programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security were pretty awful when they first passed, but they became the bedrock domestic policies of the 20th century, and some of the towering achievements of progressive lawmaking, years after the programs were in place.

As we talked about yesterday, if reform dies — or, more accurately, if it’s killed — we can expect 20 years of inaction and adverse political consequences for those who tried. If reform survives, it means coverage for the uninsured, new protections for those who are already covered, and an ongoing fight to keep building on the foundation.

Of course, even if Reid eventually agrees to pay Lieberman’s ransom, it might take a while — by all indications, the Majority Leader is livid with the Connecticut senator’s betrayal.

Reid has scheduled a special meeting of the Senate Democratic caucus for 5 p.m. (ET) today.

* One thing to keep an eye on. Lieberman has made some specific demands, which he insists have to be met. But what’s to stop Lieberman from making new demands if the White House and Senate leaders give him what he wants now? It’s not like he’s negotiating in good faith, and it’s not like Lieberman’s word has value. The White House wants Reid to cut the deal, assuming that it would end the standoff. But what if Lieberman discovers new concerns and takes the bill hostage all over again?

Update: The White House denies it’s given Reid instructions on this. White House Senior Communications Adviser Dan Pfeiffer insisted this afternoon that officials are “not pushing Senator Reid in any direction.”