White House Floating "Snowe" Trigger

Senior White House officials, in conversations with reporters today, are floating the idea that President Obama is secretly negotiating with Sen. Olympia Snowe over a health care compromise that would phase in a government-funded health care alternative if private insurance companies fail to meet quality and cost benchmarks over a certain period of the time. The public discussion of the Snowe "compromise" is meant to test the reaction of House Democrats, who will pass a bill that includes an immediate public option added to a new health insurance exchange.  The White House hopes that, having voted for a public option, House Dems would accept a "trigger" as part of a conference committee compromise rather than putting the kibosh on the entire health care reform project.  In some ways, this strategy is old, and in some ways it's new.  For months, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel has been pushing the idea of a "trigger" internally, and he and Snowe regularly trade legislative and political intelligence.  When President Obama addresses a joint session of Congress next week, he will present an outline of a comprehensive health care bill -- one that will be universal in character. Privately, the White House is signaling that Obama is willing to sign a bill that is less than universal in its coverage ambitions, though the president will not say so publicly.

Liberal/progressive proponents of a "robust" public option are skeptical of claims by reporters that Obama won't threaten to veto a bill without a public option  Unfortunately, the skepticism, accompanied by haranguing over anonymous sources, is misplaced  -- Obama hasn't ever threatened to veto a bill without a public option and won't. For a while now, Obama's aides have believed that the 50-odd progressives in the House who are demanding a public option will get their jollies if they can pass a bill out of the House, and that they will be too afraid to oppose a bill that makes it out of a subsequent conference committee -- a bill that President Obama would specifically endorse.  For now, the administration will proceed as if both the House and Senate would pass health care legislation via the normal process. The threat of passing a bill through reconciliation is "real," but it still isn't the "go" option because it is, as of yet, politically unsalable, at least in the opinion of White House aides. The politics of health care have been distorted, they believe, to the point where Obama needs to make the case that the regular (even a-historical) congressional procedure is being used by obstructionists to prevent the passage of the bill.  This may be self-evident to some Democrats, but the American people aren't there yet, and until they're there, the White House will do whatever it can to build its 60 vote supermajority.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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