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Bizarre as it seems when you stop and think about it, all the hype about government "death panels" and much of the hyperventilating among conservatives like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh that caused such a spectacle over the summer was designed to stop the very thing that the Senate Finance Committee will take up today: the possibility that as part of its effort to reform health care, the government will offer a public insurance plan to compete with private plans--the dreaded "public option." This isn't quite the main event--that will come when the full Senate votes on a bill, assuming this one makes it out of the Finance Committee. But it's as big an event as we've had yet, and congressional observers are predicting that the Senate "is about to explode." Three reporters frame the drama and explain the stakes:

Jill Lawrence at AOL's Politics Daily delivers a useful curtain-raiser. "The debate over whether to create a public insurance plan to compete with private plans is about to explode in the Senate Finance Committee," she writes. "The stakes are high and so is the suspense. It's unclear what the outcome will be Tuesday when the committee, continuing work on its 10-year, $900 billion health reform bill, is scheduled to take up three versions of a public health insurance option."

At Congress Daily, Andrew Noyes and Anna Edney point out that for all the partisan fury, the real suspense lies within the Democratic caucus (no Republican on the committee is expected to vote for the bill). Yesterday, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) had "harsh words...for Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus' healthcare overhaul bill," charging that "the Baucus draft 'dumps children'" who are not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid. Rockefeller, "who chairs the panel's Health Subcommittee, will offer an amendment to add a public option to the bill. The existing draft employs a co-op insurance system to compete with private insurers."

Carrie Budoff Brown and Patrick O'Connor at Politico provide the broader perspective, suggesting that although the public option was thought to be dead as recently as a few weeks ago, recent events suggest "it may have new life"--and the test will come today. "[S]upporters [of the public option] are working hard this week to bring it back, against the odds, with a series of high-profile votes in the Senate Finance Committee." While they don't expect to prevail on any of the committee votes today, they believe the public option still has a chance to pass the full Senate. "'The Senate floor is more favorable to the public option than the Finance Committee, and [negotiations with the House are] more favorable than the Senate floor,' said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who will offer two versions of the public plan when the Finance Committee reconvenes Tuesday." Schumer added, "'The more focus there is on the public option, the better it does.'" Still, the authors say, "there are signs everywhere that it remains an uphill fight." 

One other area of Finance Committee suspense: whether Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) will introduce a trigger for a public option.

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