The re-election option

When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced Monday that health care legislation headed to the Senate floor will include a so-called public option for health insurance, it drew praise from groups and individuals on the far left.

What it did not generate was any noticeable support among Republicans or moderate Democrats who oppose the public option, and are likely to stonewall legislation that includes it.

But winning Senate support for the public option may not have been Reid’s primary intent. Boosting his own re-election odds next year could be the real reason for Reid’s surprise announcement.

Don’t take our word for it. Unidentified Democratic congressional aides — quoted in both The Washington Post and Time — said that Reid’s announcement had more to do with Nevada politics than national health care policy.

Polls in Nevada show Democrat Reid trailing several potential Republican candidates in his 2010 re-election bid. By pushing the public option — even if it has little chance of actually winning Senate approval — Reid can secure support from the most liberal groups and individuals for his re-election bid. Or so the thinking goes.

Reid is not the first senator to put politics ahead of policy, by any means. It’s a safe bet that all 435 members of Congress have been studying polls, examining constituent comments or even reading tea leaves to determine how they should vote on health care reform.

Still, it’s more than a bit disheartening when the top man in the U.S. Senate — once known as the world’s most deliberative body — holds a press conference for a major statement on a critical policy issue, and even members of his party think he’s doing it to protect his own seat.

There is another option that seemed to be gaining broader support just a month ago. That was the public-option trigger. Under it, there would be no government-run health insurance plan initially, but one would be established if private insurers failed to meet requirements for cost control and eliminating obstacles to coverage. Such a plan would create real incentives for insurance companies to improve costs and service to avoid head-to-head competition with a government-run system.

Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, the only Republican on the Senate Finance Committee to vote for the bill that came out of that committee — which did not include a public option — supported the trigger mechanism. This week, she expressed her disappointment with Reid for dropping that option in favor of the public option.

Reid’s gambit may win him some support in his re-election bid. But it doesn’t say much about his ability as a national leader.


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