Inside the numbers: public option letter

Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee has been quite vocal lately about the 40 Senators that are now on the record supporting a public option in reconciliation.  And to be sure, they are.  But the drive to get Senators to support the public option in reconciliation actually started as a drive to get Senators to urge Majority Leader Reid to insert the public option into a reconciliation bill that could pass by majority vote.  Adam would of course say that as long as a Senator votes for the public option in reconciliation, it makes no difference whether they are proactively asking for it to be included.

But I think there is a difference.  I think there is a different signal being sent to Sen. Reid's office.  The difference is one of pressure and push.  It turns out that the letter itself has only been signed by 24 Senators, not 40.  The balance, 16 Senators, have been asked by various media sources and have said they will vote for it if it comes up.  Let me explain the difference to you this way - the difference is kind of like one between a member of Congress who sponsors or co-sponsors a bill and one who just votes for it.  The 16 who did not sign the letter are patently unwilling to create pressure on Majority Leader Reid to put the public option in reconciliation.  And for good reason.  As Ezra Klein has noted on numerous occasions, even Senators supportive of a public option do not believe that at this point, its re-emergence helps health reform pass.

So here is what is going on: Senators who are already on record supporting a public option are afraid to say that the public option cannot be passed under reconciliation.  Why?  Because in 30 second sound-bites and 24 hour news cycles, it is really hard to explain the process difference and why one thing could happen in Congress under one process but not under another.  It is really difficult to lay out the case that under reconciliation, it's quite likely that the public option, under reconciliation, will require 60 votes and not 50, in the likely scenario that the Senate parliamentarian rules that it is policy which cannot be considered within the narrow scope of reconciliation.  The only alternative scenario is the following:

Vice President Biden ignores the advice of the Senate parliamentarian and rules it allowable under reconciliation. Then a Republican would challenge that ruling, and you would need 50 votes to sustain the ruling. Now you will have an different situation altogether - 50 Democrats voting not for the public option but to overrule the Senate parliamentarian. That will never happen, since it will give Republicans their very first legitimate line of attack on health care: that the Democrats are playing hard and fast with the rules when the rules turn out to be problematic for them.  I am for the use of the Constitutional option where the Vice President uses his Constitutional power as the President of the Senate to strike as unconstitutional the filibuster altogether, but as long as the rule remains in place, the parliamentarian ought to be able to call balls and strikes regardless of whom or what such rulings favor.

See how long that took to explain?  No Senator can explain this in 30 seconds, and furthermore, expect the "public option or bust" crowd to actually give that explanation a fair hearing.  But they understand that the public option does not stand much of a chance to pass under reconciliation.  There are too many hurdles to clear, and getting reform done now is paramount.  That is why 16 Senators will go on record saying that they will vote for a public option should it come up under reconciliation, but will not ask that it be brought up under reconciliation.