Harkin’s already thinking ahead

HARKIN’S ALREADY THINKING AHEAD…. The House passed a health care reform bill with a public option, and the Senate had a compromise version of the public option that enjoyed the support of 56 senators. When it was watered down even more — it became a “trigger” as of two weeks ago — it had 58 supporters. Because the Senate can be incredibly frustrating, that wasn’t enough, and because Joe Lieberman threatened to kill the entire initiative, the measure was scuttled.

At least, for now. Very few big ideas are passed on the first try, and the public option was embraced so enthusiastically by so many this year, it stands to reason that it will be part of the policy landscape, forevermore, until it becomes law. Every candidate for federal office — especially those running in Democratic primaries — should expect to make their position on the public option clear.

The question at this point, though, is how long until the public-option debate can begin anew. One powerful Democratic senator is already thinking ahead.

One of the public option’s strongest Congressional supporters insisted on Monday that while the Senate is poised to pass health care legislation that does not offer consumers a government-run insurance plan, he will bring the idea up again — most likely after that bill is passed.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) told reporters that the public option is not dead. “It will be revisited,” he said. “I’m just saying, I believe it is so vital and so important that it is going to be revisited. Believe me.” The Iowa Democrat said that “even next year,” senators “may be doing some things to modify, to fix, to compliment what we’ve passed here.”

That’s good to hear. Conservatives should realize that while Lieberman and Ben Nelson undermined the public option this year, the issue isn’t going away. Democrats spent years improving Social Security and Medicare after they were passed, and this will be similar. The public option will remain a top progressive priority indefinitely.

Now, there are a few possibilities going forward. It’s possible that the public option could be part of the conference committee talks, but it seems unlikely — the conference report will need to overcome yet another Republican filibuster, and Lieberman and Nelson wouldn’t hesitate to join the GOP on this. Harkin alluded to 2010, but I’d be surprised if this received serious consideration by the leadership in either chamber — not only do lawmakers face a crowded election-year calendar, but it seems hard to imagine Pelosi or Reid initiating another debate on health care policy so quickly after finishing their landmark bill (assuming the landmark bill actually becomes law).

Which suggests 2011 would be the earliest available opportunity. Whether it’s possible or not will depend almost entirely on the results of the midterms — more progressive lawmakers means a better chance at making a public option happen; fewer progressive lawmakers means the policy will be that much further away.