Harkin Open To Opt-Out Compromise, Predicts Public Option Will Pass

One of the fiercest champions of the public option in Congress predicted on Friday that the Senate would pass health care legislation that included the much debated provision. But in a conference call with reporters, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) left open the possibility that reform would include (and he himself would support) an opt-out clause that allowed states to set up co-operatives in place of the public plan.

In a teleconference organized by Families USA, Harkin proclaimed -- before a question was ever asked -- that the final piece of health care legislation passed by the Senate "will have a public option."

"Four of the five [congressional] committee that reported all had a public option," he said. "All of the public polls show that a huge majority of the American people want a public option."

"There are 52 solid Democrats for a public option and only about five Democrats really kind of opposed to it," Harkin added. "One has to ask if the 52 should give into the five or if the five should come on board with the vast majority. I think the answer is clear."

But while stressing that the logic and numbers were there to get a public option through the Senate, the Iowa Democrat also conceded that he was open to finding a compromise if needed to break a Republican-led filibuster. Noting that there were three potential variations of the public plan that the Democratic Caucus was discussing, Harkin citing one, specifically, which he could support.

"That co-op idea seems to be persistent but I have not seen any data on how it can work at all," he said. "But if it was a choice, maybe I wouldn't have as much opposition if it was out there as a choice."

Asked to clarify later in the call, the senator said he was referring to a system in which Congress would create a robust, national public option while granting states the right to opt out of the system and set up a co-op instead. His preference he stressed, remains for a simple, national public plan. And when pressed on another compromise proposal -- setting up a national public plan that would only be triggered by economic conditions -- Harkin was much cooler to the idea.

"As the chairman of the HELP Committee, I'm advocating for what we have in our bill," he said. "I believe that we have done it right... I'm willing to listen to any good ideas and I will work closely with the finance committee, but frankly I think we got it right..."

Democratic leadership in the Senate is currently in the process of finding legislative language that could pacify the 52 caucus members who Harkin says are adamantly supportive of a public plan while gathering eight other votes to stave off a filibuster. As part of the process, they are also actively trying to keep the lone Republican supporter of reform -- Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine -- on board. Asked how important it was to have Snowe's support for the final measure, Harkin scoffed that good policy should not take a back seat to the veneer of bipartisanship.

"I have said all along, and I say as chairman of the committee now, that the most important thing is to get it right," he said. "It is to get the right kind of a bill, make it affordable put emphasis on prevention and wellness and get more competition.... That is the most important thing. It is not so important who you get on the bill. And I believe if we get it done right we will have the magical 60 votes for the bill."