Senate still not talking public option

The bipartisan group looking for a Senate healthcare compromise still isn't interested in adding a public option

Published September 14, 2009 2:56PM (EDT)

President Obama's speech on healthcare Wednesday night may have helped sell the reform plan to voters, but it doesn't appear to have had much of an affect on the six moderate members of the Senate Finance Committee who are trying to write a bipartisan bill by this week.

Democrats and Republicans alike in the so-called "Gang of Six" said over the weekend that they're still not interested in including a public option in their draft legislation, despite Obama's defense of the idea last week.

"The only thing that has a prospect of passing [in the Senate] is what is happening in the Senate, in the Finance Committee, where three Democrats and three Republicans have been given the responsibility to come up with a proposal for our colleagues," Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., one of the six, told Fox News Sunday's Chris Wallace. None of the various House bills, which include a public option, would pass the Senate, Conrad said.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said the same thing on CBS Sunday Morning. "It's universally opposed by all Republicans in the Senate," Snowe said. "And therefore, there's no way to pass a plan that includes the public option." That's actually oversimplifying things, though. Snowe would support a public option that only kicked in if certain triggers were met; such a plan would specify that if insurance markets remain uncompetitive and overpriced even after private insurance companies design new plans for a government-run exchange system, a public option could start up. But Snowe said even though she'd go for that, it's "not on the table" in the Gang of Six talks, which are focusing on a non-profit co-op system, favored by Conrad, instead.

The group is set to resume talks this week, and Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., says he'll release his proposed draft in the next few days, whether Republicans get on board or not.

But for now, it sounds like progressives will have to try to hammer a public option into the legislation in a House-Senate conference if they want to keep it in the bill. That might still be possible: Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the new chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, is a strong supporter of the public option, which most of the House Democratic conference also wants. The White House, though, could wind up having the final say.


By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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