Snowe's "Trigger" and "Democratic Civil War"
Mike Lux is a very pragmatic and unity-minded member of the self-conscious progressive wing of the Democratic Party. So it certainly got my attention when he published a post at OpenLeft today threatening that adoption by Senate Democrats of Sen. Olympia Snowe's "public option trigger" would create a "Democratic Civil War."
Mike's primary substantive argument is that Snowe's "trigger" involves a Catch-22 mechanism whereby the "affordability" of private health insurance that would avoid a public option in any given state is judged according to prices that include federal subsidies defined as making coverage "affordable." Thus, he reasons, there will be no public option anywhere private insurance is offered. I doubt that's right, but not having seen any actual legislative language for the Snowe "trigger," I can't say with certainty it's wrong, either. This may be a case where perception matters as much as reality, particularly if progressives suspect they are being sold a pig in a poke.
The general "insider" view on the end-game for health care reform has been that in the end, public option advocates would unhappily accept a "trigger" as far preferable to the co-op structure embedded in the Baucus bill. Indeed, the main appeal of the "trigger" idea, as Ezra Klein has explained, is that it accomodates the wildly different empirical assumptions that supporters and opponents of a public option hold about what would happen to the price and availability of private health insurance in a competitive system. If progressives are right that effective competition would not occur--one of the main arguments for a public option in the first place--then a public option would arise, at least in theory.
Now Mike is saying that's all a sham, and you'd have to expect that many public option opponents would say the same thing from the opposite perspective, arguing that the "trigger" will always be pulled. As Ezra Klein also noted in his piece on the "trigger," there's not much of a constituency for compromise on this issue. And that's why offers of a legislative "fix" for the flaw that Mike is focusing on won't be very warmly welcomed.
But here's the realiity: As a practical matter, if Senate Democratic leaders reject both co-ops and a "triggered" public option, then they probably have to move health care reform legislation via the budget reconciliation route. It's not just a matter of giving up the pursuit of Olympia Snowe (and perhaps the one or two Republicans she might be able to bring with her); enough "centrist" Democrats have heartburn over a "robust" public option, over a purely partisan bill, or over what will eventually emerge from a conference committee, to all but guarantee that Democrats will fall short of the 60 votes necessary to kill a filibuster, even now that Massachussets is supplying Democrats with a 60th senator.
As I noted earlier this week, there are legitimate concerns about how the use of reconciliation would play out. Maybe that really is the way to go, and maybe it will produce a 50-plus-one vote margin for a bill that not only has a strong public option, but that's pretty close to what the House is likely to pass, which simplifies this whole process considerably.
But in cases like this, a Plan B would be advisable, and public option supporters might want to give some serious thought as to whether there is a version of the "trigger"--in which "affordability" is better defined, and a larger scale for competion is provided than the state-by-state approach Snowe is promoting--that might be acceptable if push comes to shove. This really isn't a great time for a "Democratic civil war."