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The Public Option, Still Dead

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi just declared that the public option is dead. Again. And she's right. Again.

For the last few weeks, public option advocates have waged a heroic campaign to revive the public option by getting individual Senators to endorse it. The idea was to take advantage of the reconciliation process, in which fifty-plus-one senators can pass legislation without getting filibustered. The public option never got 60 votes in the Senate; that's why it didn't end up in the final Senate bill. But it got a lot more than 50.

But things are not so simple. Some of the senators who voted for the public option last time figured that, between Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, the public option wouldn't end up in the final measure anyway. Similarly, some of the senators who signed the petition in the last few weeks figured that petition effort would fail on its own.

Of course, agitating for the public option was soaking up time and energy while setting up liberals for yet another disappointment. That's why Jay Rockefeller, among the Senate's most passionate public option advocates, eventually said what nobody else was brave enough to say on his or her own: The public option just wasn't going to happen. When that didn't stop the effort, Dick Durbin did it.

Public option advocates, led by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, didn't take no for an answer and went after Durbin. Durbin responded by saying, fine, Senate leadership would try for a public option just as soon as the House made it clear it was prepared to do the same. But that's the rub: The House doesn't have the votes, either.

As things stand, Pelosi is going to have all kinds of trouble rallying enough centrist votes to pass a bill. And she doesn't have much time. She was able to get a public option through the process in November, when the House passed reform the first time. But that was in a more favorable political environment--and before she was losing at least a handful of members who think the Senate bill is too liberal on abortion rights.

Not that Pelosi, or her colleagues, deserve blame for the public option's demise. To be clear, it was the Senate that killed the public option.

The good news is that the public option can still come back to life.  It just may take a bit longer. The Senate bill allows states room to come up with their own schemes for universal coverage, just so long as they don't provide less protection or cost more than what they would do under the federal framework. Adding a state-based public option would seem to be entirely possible. So would creating a state-based single-payer system. Or Congress could try again in the near future. It would take more political work to do any of those things. But that doesn't mean it can't be done.

Update: PCCC co-founder Adam Green issues a statement:

When the Senate Whip says he will aggressively whip the House reconciliation bill through the Senate unamended and onto the President's desk, the Speaker doesn't get to say the Senate lacks the votes. We have 41 yes votes on the record--and it's ridiculous to think Tom Harkin, Jay Rockefeller, Herb Kohl, Claire McCaskill, Kay Hagan, Robert Byrd, and other undeclared senators are going to vote against the president's top domestic priority on the final vote. If Speaker Pelosi refuses to even allow a vote on the public option, than she killed the public option. It's time for her to step up.

Well, that's one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is that Pelosi has done more than any other congressional leader--or the president--to secure a public option. If she believes it's not possible to pass a bill that contains one, she's probably right.

On a more reasonable note, Jon Walker of FireDogLake notes that the state waiver may not offer a pathway to single-payer because it doesn't necessarily pre-empt ERISA, the law that protects large employer plans from state regulation. If he's right--and the reasoning seems sound to me--getting a single-payer plan would require an actual change in the reform law.