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Renewed Public Option Push in Senate Tests Democratic Unity

The push by the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to include a public option into a health care reform bill drew sharply different reactions on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, with liberals voicing support, moderates airing concerns, and Republicans promising a filibuster.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Fault lines spread through the U.S. Senate today over including a public option in health care reform. The decision by Majority Leader Harry Reid set off a struggle for votes to pass or to block the bill.

    Betty Ann Bowser begins our lead story report.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    The Reid announcement dominated the Senate floor from the start this morning.

    Republican Charles Grassley of Iowa and other opponents of any government-run plan wasted no time.

  • SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY, R-Iowa:

    Let's hope the Democratic leadership and the White House aren't willing to push a bill that forces 200 million people to pay higher premiums unless they enroll in a new government entitlement insurance program.

    But that is certainly what it sounds like. Whatever the motive may be, the facts are undeniable. Health insurance premiums will increase for every individual and small business as early as next year.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    Supporters of a public option, like Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin, argued it would make insurance companies improve coverage, cut costs. And, he noted, there's an opt-out provision for states.

  • SEN. RICHARD DURBIN, D-Ill.:

    Individual states can decide whether they want to have a public option available to the people who live there.

    If the state of Iowa, whose senator came to the floor this morning, decided they don't like a public option, they can pass a law in the Iowa legislature, sign it by the governor. They're opting out of public option, their choice. Each state can make their choice. That's what opt-out is all about.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    Even to move a bill to the floor, majority leader Reid will need 60 votes. And, this afternoon, it was unclear how close he is to that number. Several moderate Democrats have warned openly they will oppose any bill that includes a public option.

    One of those Democrats, Louisiana's Mary Landrieu, said in a statement she remains "very skeptical." And independent Democrat Joe Lieberman said he would vote with Republicans, if necessary, to stop a public option from being part of any health care reform bill.

    Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, the lone Republican to vote for the Senate Finance Committee bill, minus a public option, said today she's deeply disappointed with the Reid decision.

  • SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE, R-Maine:

    I think it's important to improve the legislation as it moves through the process, even though I cannot support the public option proposal that the leader has offered.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    Snowe said she expressed her concern when President Obama telephoned her over the weekend.

  • SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE:

    I said I would have just — that I would be disappointed, that I thought that there was a way of building the bipartisan support for this initiative. And that's why I had proposed the trigger initially, which included the public option as a fallback mechanism, rather than creating it initially in the program at the forefront.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    Maine's other senator, Republican Susan Collins, said, Reid has made a real mistake.

  • SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, R-Maine:

    I realize, no matter what decision Senator Reid made on having a Washington-run public plan, that he was probably going to lose votes.

    I think that his decision, however, forecloses any attempt to get Republican votes. And I think that's really unfortunate, because we do need to pass a health care reform bill. And I believe that there are members on both sides of the aisle that are committed to that goal.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    The majority leader defended his decision on the public option today, and he rejected charges he catered to his party's left wing, at the expense of bipartisanship.

  • SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev.:

    Our public option isn't a left proposal or a right proposal. This is a consensus, a compromise, that represents months of hard work and debate that will benefit all Americans. It's an important way to ensure competition, to level the playing field for patients. It protects consumers and keep the insurance companies honest.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    Reid drew support from Democratic liberals, who called his action courageous.

  • West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller:

  • SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER, D-W.Va.:

    I think it was a smart thing to do. And I can't exactly prove it to you, but I know, in my soul, in my gut, that the momentum is moving in our direction, that we are unified in our purpose, the issue is huge, the American people care, and that we're going to end up with a bill. And that makes me feel good.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    The chairman of the Finance Committee, Max Baucus of Montana, acknowledged there's a fight ahead for 60 votes. But he said supporters have the wind at their backs.

  • SEN. MAX BAUCUS, D-Mont.:

    This is really a torturous route. This is not easy. But underlying it all is the sense of inevitability, the sense that, yes, we are going to pass health care reform, and it's going to lower costs, provide better health insurance coverage, and cover — and reform the health insurance market. It's going to happen. And that's what's really underlying momentum that's starting to grow here.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    Democratic leaders on the House side already plan to include a public option in their bill. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said today they could have details of their bill later this week.

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