Will Senate Procedure Save The Public Option?

Here's an idea that ABC News' Jonathan Karl floated this morning--or, rather, that Democratic sources have floated to him: that the public option will pass in the Senate without 60 votes. Sources tell Karl that Reid thinks this will work.

Here's how: 60 votes aren't actually needed to pass health care reform--they're only needed to break a Republican filibuster and bring a reform bill to the floor. Once 60 senators vote in favor of cloture, another round of debate begins, and the Senate votes on the actual bill. At that point, Democratic senators who oppose the public option (of which there are several) would be able to rail against the public option to their hearts' content, eventually voting against it. But the bill itself will only need 51 votes to pass.

This, of course, is nothing new: it's just how the Senate works. What's new is that Reid reportedly thinks he can convince centrist Democrats in his caucus to vote for cloture, knowing full well that the public option is likely to pass once they do.

It's about legislative philosophy and political cover. If centrist Dems believe the public option deserves a yea-or-nay vote on the Senate floor--and should only need 50 votes to pass--then, in principle, they should vote for cloture. If they truly dislike the public option, they know they can stop it by voting "no" on the procedural measure.

It's also true that cloture votes are cumbersome to explain during campaign season, and the distinction--voting for cloture vs. voting for a bill itself--is not one that's generally afforded by political opponents, in stump speeches, TV ads, radio ads, and live debates.

If the Senate's centrist Democrats believe their constituencies don't like the public option, then they will have to be ready to explain, in their next re-election campaigns, why they voted for cloture if they opposed the public option all along and had a chance to stop it for good. It's certainly an argument that can be made, but you can be bet they'll be forced to make it.