Public option? DOA or still on life support?

This week’s headlines declared the so-called public option dead on arrival after the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday rejected two versions of it offered by Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer of New York and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia.

Dead? It is not dead, but it is dead. Let me explain. Last week I attended a breakfast hosted by the Democratic Women’s Working Group in the House, and four female House Democrats insisted at that event that if any form of health care reform emerges from the Senate, the public option will be included in the House version. They added that Democrats have the votes to push it through when the House-Senate conference committee meets to iron out differences between the two chambers’ bills.

Of course there’s another even more important player in all this: President Obama. He and his aides, who are on the phone with Congressional leaders many times each day, will have to decide whether they want to play politics like George W. Bush and ram through a version of health care reform that’s heavily opposed by Republicans and moderate Democrats, or stick to the middle and approve a weaker package that can claim majority support.

If President Obama used the one-sided, divisive tactics of his predecessor, there’s no doubt what he would do. He would govern from the extreme (in Obama’s case Left of his party, in Bush’s case, Right) and force an expansive, expensive version of health care reform down the throats of everyone else. But Obama, being the great compromiser, must decide whether he wants to govern by am-Bush. Looking forward to 2012, he must also decide whether he wants to lose the support of critical independent and moderate voters who were critical to his decisive victory last year. Then there’s the question of how harshly a dissatisfied voting public would punish his party during mid-term elections, and how many seats Democrats stand to lose in the House and Senate.

Assuming the House bill includes Obama’s public option, his reasoning on final passage through the Senate will have to answer the following question: Does he want to secure the votes of all 60 Senate Democrats by allowing passage of a moderate bill, or resort to procedural maneuvering to pass his bill with a slim majority of 51 votes? reports: “Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) would not support the public option, which means Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) is also a ‘no’ vote since he told constituents that he could not go with a Democrat-only bill. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) voted against both public option amendments in the Finance Committee.”

Other conservative Democrats, such as Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, could be forced by their own party to vote against the President’s signature domestic legislation. Complicating matters for Southern Democrats is the knotty issue of abortion. Upcoming in Senate Finance Committee discussions are amendments to the health plan that ban coverage for abortion by federally subsidized health insurance. Pro-choice groups say women who have such coverage under their private plans stand to lose it if anti-abortion groups are able to push their plan through Congress.

This is no minor dispute. Even if supporters and opponents are able to resolve differences over the so-called public option, division over how and when to cover abortions could be a deal-killer.

The lesson we should all hope is that President Obama is learning from all this and that bringing together divisive factions in Congress is not the picnic he hoped it would be nor is governing from the middle. Where is King Solomon when we need him?

(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)