The public option is in

Progressive Democrats seemed happy with Nevada Senator and Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision to include a public option in the Senate’s health care reform bill. Coupled with a House of Representatives’ bill that will no doubt also include a public option, it seems to indicate Barack Obama stands a good chance of passing a meaningful reform package before the end of his first year in power. And while it is hard to predict the final outcome, it seems reasonable to assume that a public option will be in the final bill Obama will sign.

This will not happen without some uncertainty and acrimony in the next few weeks. The left remains skeptical that a watered-down public option will not sufficiently reduce costs and may not be available to enough Americans for it to make a difference. It is a legitimate argument, but key Senate liberals like Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Chuck Schumer from New York are already in push-back mode. As for the Republicans, GOP senator Olympia Snowe has expressed her dissatisfaction with Reid’s proposal, stating that she is opposed to a public option in the final bill. Snowe would rather include a trigger for a public option, which would come into being if health insurers fail to reduce costs. If she maintains that position, it would eradicate any hope for nominal bipartisanship. The symbolism of having Snowe on side may explain why stories circulated over the weekend suggesting the Obama White House prefers a trigger.

Still, the Democratic leadership in the Senate appears to have concluded that the Republicans are stuck in a set position to say no to any Democratic proposal and any compromise with the GOP Maine senator is no longer worth the effort. If, as expected, there is no filibuster and a vote takes place in the next few weeks, it is likely Snowe will vote no along with some conservative Blue Dog Democrats. This would be bipartisanship in reverse, with Democrats joining the minority Republicans. Regardless, it is safe to assume that Democrats will have the votes necessary to adopt healthcare reform, even as the far-right presses ahead with charges of impending socialism under Obama.

The Republicans are on the verge of being outmanoeuvred. Party identification with the Republicans is already at its lowest total in 26 years and, with the far-right dominating the headlines, more moderate Republicans are staying on the sidelines. Today’s developments have to be encouraging to Obama because they show a growing consensus among key players in the debate. Some Republicans could still try to take some credit for the reforms, but it is unlikely they will break ranks. After all, the GOP’s opposition to a public option is what has divided the two major parties from the outset. But if the reforms gain favour with voters, the GOP will have made the worst possible political calculation.

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