The public option finds some friends

THE PUBLIC OPTION FINDS SOME FRIENDS…. It started as a reasonable question: if the Senate is going to have to take one last shot at health care reform, this time through reconciliation, why not bring back the public option? After all, if the public option was scrapped in order to get 60 votes, and legislation considered under reconciliation can pass with 50 votes, why not go back to the measures the Democratic mainstream wanted in the first place?

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), just this week, got to work on this, and 48 hours ago, Sens. Mike Bennet (D-Colo.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) sent a letter to the leadership. The four voiced their “strong support” for the reform bill approved in December by the Senate, but said bringing back the public option would “improve both its substance and the public’s perception of” the final bill.

Yesterday, four supporters became six. Six became eight. A couple of senators signed on here, a few more there. By late morning today, the total reached 16. Soon after, Chuck Schumer, a member of the party leadership, became #17, and added some heft to the entire effort.

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, is backing the effort. Schumer’s re-entry into the public option fight gives it a major boost. Schumer, as head of the party’s campaign efforts in 2006 and 2008, elected one in six of those now in the caucus and is trusted for his political judgment. If Schumer thinks the public option effort is a political winner, his colleagues will take note.

Schumer made his announcement in a message to his supporters, obtained by HuffPost.

“This is far from a done deal,” Schumer wrote, “but it’s an opportunity to break through the obstructionism Republicans have pushed for the past year.”

Given Schumer’s role in the caucus, his signature on the letter will not only get other Democrats’ attention, but also likely get additional caucus members to sign on.

For what it’s worth, I’m not inclined to get my hopes up, despite my support for the public option, in part because I’ve been let down before. In fact, it’s possible this push to make reform more progressive now is intended to serve as a counter-weight to any additional compromise efforts being considered in advance of next week’s summit.

And that’s not the only caveat. Having 17 Dems sign on in just two days is impressive, but 50 is still quite a ways off. For that matter, even if the Senate could approve a final bill through reconciliation with a public option, it would still need 218 votes in the House — and just because it barely passed the House in November with a public option doesn’t mean that level of support is still there. More than likely, the support is lower, and some of the Dems who voted against the bill before would need to switch in order to assure final passage.

Among Americans, the public option has long been one of the most popular ideas in the entire reform debate. Among lawmakers, it remains one of the most contentious elements of reform. For policymakers trying to figure out how to get this done, it would be, shall we say, out of character for them to start putting back in provisions that they perceive as excessively controversial. Indeed, given that reform’s future is already in a precarious state, it’s that much more difficult to imagine Dems taking a chance on a renewed debate over an idea most lawmakers thought they’d put behind them.

And yet, I also wouldn’t have expected 17 senators to push this during the recess. If this number can grow some more — say, to the 40 to 45 range — by early Saturday, it might start to seem almost plausible.