The “Public Option” Trap

Yesterday, I wrote that if Sen. Harry Reid proceeds to the floor with a health care bill that includes a government plan, he risks derailing the whole health care effort. And I thought that was worth fleshing out a bit more.

The key thing to keep in mind about yesterday’s Joe Lieberman news is that there are actually several filibuster threats that Reid will have to overcome. The first major one will be on whether he can bring the health care bill to the floor for debate, and the last major hurdle will be on whether he can cut off debate and bring a final bill to a vote. Lieberman has said that he’s inclined to vote with Reid on the first one, and thus allow the bill to be debated and amended, but that at the end of the process, if the bill still includes a government plan, he would join with Republicans to block a vote.

The reason why this is so tricky for Reid is that once a bill gets to the floor, it’s very difficult to change it. For instance, if the bill includes a government plan, it would require 60 votes to strip that measure from the bill. So if Lieberman is serious about his threat to filibuster a government-run plan, what that means is there’s a risk a bill could get trapped on the Senate floor. In other words, liberals won’t provide Reid with the 60 votes needed to ditch the government plan, but if the government plan isn’t ditched, Reid won’t have the votes to cut off debate and proceed to a simple majority vote on the final bill.

With that said, a Senate GOP source cautions that once Reid gets the bill to the floor, he has the ability to spread around all sorts of goodies to bribe reluctant moderate Democrats into at least supporting the vote to cut off debate and proceed with a vote, even if they ultimately vote against the final bill. That’s why Republicans argue that it’s important to make sure that the bill doesn’t even get to the floor in the first place. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has emphasized that moderate Democrats shouldn’t be allowed to get away with drawing a  distinction between a vote to consider the bill and a final vote on the bill itself.

On that point, McConnell seems to have agreement from Indiana Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh. As Politico reported:

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.): Democratic leaders should be able to tell where Bayh is headed based on his vote on whether to move to a debate. The Indiana Democrat said Tuesday that he doesn’t see “much difference between process and policy at this particular juncture,” and that he’ll be “looking at those two things as one and the same.”

The bottom line, says the Senate GOP source, is: “If people oppose the bill, they have to let Democrats know they consider that first cloture vote as the vote on the bill.”