Moderate Democrats chilly to public option
Group of senators noncommittal on health care bill
WASHINGTON – Moderate Democratic senators remained reluctant Tuesday – and in one case, defiant – about backing the government-run “public option” health care plan that party leaders are offering as a compromise, making it highly uncertain whether the plan can become law.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who caucuses with Democrats and was the party’s vice presidential nominee in 2000, said he’d back a filibuster to prevent a public option from coming to a final vote.
“If the bill stays as it is now, I will vote against cloture, which is to say against the bill coming to final passage,” he said.
The centrists, a loose-knit group of as many as 12 Democratic senators, are crucial to the success of any health care bill, because it takes 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to stave off a filibuster – an extended debate to prevent a decisive vote – and Democrats control 60 seats.
After Democrats met privately for about an hour Tuesday, the moderates were largely unenthusiastic about Monday’s proposal from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to include a public option in the pending health care overhaul legislation, while allowing states to opt out of it.
While the Democrats, including Lieberman, are expected to vote with their party leadership at least to allow debate to begin, there are serious questions about whether they’ll provide the votes needed to end debate over specific parts of the bill or, in the end, to approve the legislation.
Reid said he was unconcerned, calling Lieberman “the least of Harry Reid’s problems.”
Many of the moderate Democrats said Tuesday that they weren’t certain what they might do.
“I don’t think we can reach any conclusions about this until we see the whole package,” said Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota.
Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas echoed him: “I’m making no commitments until I see the bill.”
While a majority of Senate Democrats are thought to favor a nationwide government-run system as one option in the health-care legislation, the moderates would prefer a more modest approach, and some have said they flatly oppose Reid’s plan.
Lieberman said the opt-out plan “creates a whole new government entitlement program.”
Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., has said she’d oppose any new government-run health care system. In addition, the two Republican moderates from Maine who sometimes side with Democrats on key votes said they wouldn’t cross party lines this time.
“I don’t see opt-out as any kind of compromise at all,” said Sen. Susan Collins, echoing the position of Sen. Olympia Snowe.
Other key problems that Democratic centrists cited were the potential cost of the bill, and its lack of specifics.