Democratic leaders were forced to include a national public health insurance option as part of health care reform by progressive Democratic senators who refused to support anything less, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said on Monday.
Durbin's assessment was made to a handful of reporters following the announcement by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that after weeks of talks with his colleagues he had determined that including a public option that states could opt out of was the best way to go.
For many years, it's been centrist and conservative-leaning senators who have been scoring legislative victories by digging in their heels, so this represented a quite dramatic turnabout. It is difficult to remember the last time that progressives won a legislative victory by laying down firm demands and sticking to them. In the House, the Congressional Progressive Caucus has found its feet, too, and is locked in a final battle with conservative Democrats over the shape of a public option.
At the end of last week, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, the lone Republican that Democrats are still trying to woo, said that she couldn't support a bill that had a public option with an opt-out provision. Snowe preferred a public option that would be "triggered" into being by a failure by the insurance industry to meet certain benchmarks.
But Reid and the leadership faced this basic math: There is only one Snowe and there are 60 members of the Democratic caucus. If just a few Democrats abandoned the bill, it would fall short even with Snowe's support.
"It's a zero-sum situation," said Durbin, who is in charge of counting votes in the Senate. "If we thought that just putting the trigger in meant that we'd end with 61 votes," he explained, then that's what leadership would have done.
"But there were some [senators] that felt that that just didn't go far enough moving toward a public option," said Durbin, who is himself a backer.
"We have 60 people in the caucus," Reid said. "We'll all hang together and see where we come out."
Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) had insisted he would oppose any bill without a public option and rejected the trigger as a compromise. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent and self-described democratic socialist who caucuses with Democrats, had come close to making such a threat but said he was "playing it day to day." Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) said over the weekend that the lack of a public option was a "good reason" to vote against it.
Durbin said that he is confident the progressive wing in the Senate is satisfied with the opt-out compromise.
Snowe called Reid's decision "deeply disappointing", but the majority leader said he still hopes to win her support for the overall package.
"I spoke to Olympia on Friday. I've talked to her on a number of occasions. And at this stage she does not like a public option of any kind. And so we'll have to move forward on this, and there [will] come a time, I hope, where she sees the wisdom of supporting a health care bill after having had an opportunity, her and others, to offer amendments," said Reid. "We hope that Olympia will come back. She's worked hard. She's a very good legislator. I'm disappointed that the one issue, the public option, has been something that's frightened her."