Senate Democrats desperate to find a way to pass a health care bill that includes a federal insurance plan may have come up with a way to do it without putting moderate members who oppose it in political jeopardy.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is weighing a plan to bring the final health care bill to the floor without a public option -- making it much easier to get the 60 votes needed to prevent a Republican filibuster -- and then adding the provision later as an amendment.
The public option amendment would be there waiting, but the 60-vote test would technically be on a bill without the government plan. Then moderate Democrats could drop out for the vote on the public option, which requires just 51 votes for passage.
"It's brilliant," said a top Senate Republican aide. "It gets you your votes on cloture for a package that does not include a public option."
Reid has not revealed whether he will use this tactic, but he's considering it.
"We haven't made any decisions yet," his spokesman, Jim Manley, said. "We have different options -- that is one."
Senate aides suggest that after passage in the upper chamber, the Senate bill -- public option included -- could then be sent to the House, allowing the lower chamber to simply pass Reid's legislation instead of taking up its own bill. That route would avoid a protracted and contentious battle to meld two different bills and might allow President Obama and Democrats to achieve their goal of passing health care reform by year's end.
Open-government proponents slammed the tactic, saying it would be a bait-and-switch gambit for the Senate to put forward a bill without a public insurance option, only to slip it in later.
"You don't lock out the American people from the process, and this is essentially locking out the American people," said Brian Darling, director of Senate relations for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Senate Democrats may have little choice but to use this tactic if they are to pass a bill with a public option, as Reid has pledged.
Senate Democratic Vice Conference Chairman Charles Schumer, of New York, said most Democrats backed some kind of public option but he was still four to six votes short of the 60-vote threshold.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said she and other Democratic moderates feared that the proposal was simply too expensive.
"We feel very strongly about doing this in the most cost-effective manner possible, and we make no apologies for that," Landrieu told The Examiner. "We are making progress, but we are not there yet."
If the Senate decides to bring the public option into the bill as an amendment, Democratic leaders will have to reveal that plan before the initial vote, and that could cost them critical support.
"My vote is not on autopilot," said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., when asked if he would vote for a bill that would be amended with a public option. "There is a lot of apprehension, a lot of concern about the bill."