WASHINGTON – A handful of moderate Senate Democrats will determine the fate of this year’s health care overhaul, and they’re sending strong signals that while they are willing to compromise, they’re wary of a strong public option.
“I’ve ruled out a government-funded and a government-operated plan,” said Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., who faces a tough re-election fight next year.
Added Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. “I don’t believe Americans want a (new) government-run health care system.”
Democrats control 60 of the 100 Senate seats, enough to overcome procedural hurdles if they stick together. But they’ve been struggling to find consensus, because moderate senators, most from the South and Midwest, hear lots of skepticism from the folks back home.
The informal centrist roster includes senators who have broken with the party the most this year: Indiana’s Evan Bayh and Nebraska’s Ben Nelson, as well as Tom Carper of Delaware, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut (an independent who caucuses with the Democrats), Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Warner and Jim Webb of Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana and Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota.
Nelson and Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, the lone Republican to vote for a Democratic-authored health care plan in the Senate Finance Committee earlier this month, hosted meetings Tuesday and Thursday with a small group of moderates, including Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. Some centrists have had lengthy, private meetings with President Barack Obama at the White House.
Their chief messages: Constituents are confused and wary of changes to the nation’s health care system, and if a plan is perceived as too expensive and complex, there could be political consequences.
“We need to make constituents understand what we’re doing. We need a tutorial,” said Snowe.
The moderates, though, are up against powerful political forces. Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives have pledged to include a strong public option in their bill, which is expected to be debated next month. In the Senate, Health Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, estimates that a strong public option has at least 52 Democratic votes.
Leaders talk of pushing a public option that would allow states to “opt out,” but that’s not generating enthusiasm among the moderates.