Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebilius caused an uproar on Sunday when she described the creation of a new government plan as “not the essential element” to health care legislation — even though liberals have long described it as the heart of President Obama’s health care proposal. Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad said, “The fact of the matter is, there are not the votes in the United States Senate for the public option. There never have been. So to continue to chase that rabbit, I think, is just a wasted effort.” Conrad has proposed the idea of a non-profit co-op as a substitute for a fully government-run plan, but liberals have dismissed the idea as inadequate.
The White House’s decision to at least back off the idea of a so-called “public option” is not totally surprising, as it’s been pretty clear for awhile that the Obama administration wants to be able to sign some form of health care legislation this year rather than risk total defeat. But this also sets up the dynamic that I’ve been writing about for months — dropping the creation of a new government plan modeled after Medicare may help woo moderates, but it will also lose liberals. While Conrad says that legislation with a strong government-run plan did not have the votes to get through the Senate, it’s not clear that a bill could get through the House that did not include such a plan. Remember, 57 House Democrats signed a letter last month saying they could not support a bil that did not include a government plan that they viewed as strong enough.
Meanwhile, today, the front page of the website the Campaign for America’s Future, which has been pushing the idea, reads “No Surrender on the Public Option: Talk of compromise in the White House and among Democrats in Congress does not change this basic fact: There is no reform without a public health insurance plan. This week, we are refusing to back down.” A straw poll of liberal activists at the Netroots Nation conference in Pittsburgh this weekend found that 53 percent said they couldn’t support a bill that didn’t include a new government-run plan, compared with just 26 percent who said they could.