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Senate panel defeats public healthcare option. Is it dead?

Backers of the public option will draw hope from the vote, which was closer than expected. But tough healthcare negotiations lie ahead.

By Staff writer / September 29, 2009

An audience member hold up a small sign with the words 'Public Option' as President Barack Obama spoke at a rally on health care reform on Sept. 17, at the Comcast Center at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File

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Washington

Two proposals for a public healthcare option went down to an expected defeat in the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday. Yet the narrower-than-expected vote could amount to something of a victory for proponents of the public option.

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Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York’s attempt to include a public option in the Finance panel’s bill lost, 10 to 13. But many in Washington had expected the defeat to be much heavier after August’s chastening town-hall meetings and several tepid expressions of support from President Obama.

Senator Schumer’s success in mustering decent support in the Finance panel for a public option gives proponents hope. “With some work and some compromise, we can get 60 votes in the Senate,” said Schumer.

Adds Ralph Neas, chief executive officer of the National Coalition on Healthcare: “What Senator Schumer did today is keep the ball in play.”

The vote potentially sets the stage for an epic showdown in a month or so, when House and Senate leaders sit down to negotiate a compromise bill.

The Senate Finance Committee is the last to complete work on an overhaul of the healthcare system. After the Finance panel completes work on its version of the bill, perhaps this week, its bill will be merged with the version produced by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions panel, which includes a public option.

If Senate Democratic leaders go with the Finance panel and drop a public option from the merged version of the bill, as expected, it simplifies passage in the Senate, but sets up a direct confrontation with the House.

Since all three of the House bills include a public option, the merged version of the House bill is certain to have a public option.

The clash between congressional chambers could play out as a high stakes vetting of differences within the ranks of the Democratic Party.

Forty members of the Progressive Caucus are threatening to derail healthcare legislation unless it includes a robust public option. Without them, House Democrats could not pass a Healthcare bill unless they get Republican support.

Both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Schumer say they are confident that it’s possible to draft a package with a public option that can win a majority in both houses.

The key to getting 218 votes in the House and 60 Senate votes, they say, is refocusing the debate on the need to cut Americans’ healthcare costs.

“What about the majority of Americans who have Medicare or something else, why do they need the public option? Here’s why: We must get costs down,” Schumer said in today’s Finance panel debate.

“The overarching issue is lowering costs,” said Pelosi, after today’s leadership meeting.

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