Healthcare holdouts: Joe Lieberman won't budge on public option

Sen. Joe Lieberman, an Independent who caucuses with Democrats, has been a key vote on important bills. He's been unwavering so far in his opposition to including any kind of public option in the healthcare reform bill.

Harry Hamburg/AP
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., talks to reporters after leaving a Democratic caucus outside of the Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill Wednesday

Ask Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut if Democratic leaders are pressuring him on a vote and, typically, he just laughs.

But he has fast become the decisive vote on key pieces of legislation – and appears poised to play that role again on healthcare reform.

So far during the Obama administration, Senator Lieberman has voted the Democrats’ way and carried the Democratic flag. In February, he cast a key vote on President Obama’s stimulus plan. Last week, he emerged as the president’s lead defender on the decision to “surge” troops into Afghanistan. On Thursday, he joined Sens. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts and Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina in making a case in the Senate for climate-change legislation, another Obama priority.

But on healthcare reform? Lieberman has been out front for months about his dislike for one particular idea favored by most Democrats: the so-called public option. Not only does he oppose empowering the government to provide health insurance to qualifying Americans, but he says he will join Republicans in filibustering the bill if the public option is in it.

“My opposition to a government-run insurance option, including any option with a trigger [a default to a public option if private insurers do not hit affordability targets], has been clear for months and remains my position today,” he said in a statement Wednesday, in response to reports that liberal and centrist Democrats had reached a deal on the issue.

If there’s a problem with an industry, he says, government should regulate it, not seek to replace it.

Independent streak

Famously independent, Lieberman was abandoned by most Democratic leaders in the 2006 reelection race in his home state, and he nearly lost. His decision to sit with their caucus gave Democrats their 51st vote and bare majority in the previous Congress.

After Lieberman campaigned for GOP presidential candidate John McCain in 2008, some Democrats again called for his ouster from the caucus – or at least stripping his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Senate majority leader Harry Reid opted to let him keep his gavel.

Lieberman now says he is waiting to see some paper on the public-option deal and to see what the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reports about its cost. Any hint of a public option plan with a “trigger” and he will back a GOP filibuster of the bill, Lieberman says.

He’s also concerned about the prospect of a Medicare buy-in proposal, expected to be in the final version of this deal, that extends eligibility to people as young as 55.

“We must remain vigilant about protecting and extending the solvency of the program, which is now in a perilous financial condition,” he says.

Lieberman and Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine are cosponsoring a bipartisan package of amendments that mandate more transparency for insurers and healthcare providers and to rein in costs.

"All too much of the Senate debate of healthcare reform has been divided along partisan lines," said Lieberman on Dec. 4. "This bipartisan amendment package will strengthen healthcare reform, improve patient care, encourage consumer choice, create a more efficient healthcare delivery system, and contain the increasing costs of healthcare."

Facing liberal anger

Meanwhile, critics are stepping up vigils and protests at his home and office. Liberal bloggers dub him a stooge for the insurance industry for opposing a public option, citing the $1 million-plus in campaign contributions he has received from the industry since 1990.

(Lieberman ranks No. 11 in the Senate over that time period as a recipient of campaign funds from the industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. For the 2010 election cycle, however, he has received just $5,500 from the industry, ranking him at No. 64. He is not up for reelection until 2012.)

“What inducements Senator Reid can use to unstick Lieberman from his implacable opposition to the public option in any form, I don’t know,” says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “What Reid could do is so conceal a public option that it didn’t look like a public option. Reid’s genius is packaging legislation … making it palatable to people who otherwise would gag on it. That’s his strength.”

See also:

Mary Landrieu likes her $300 million

Blanche Lincoln wants to focus on jobs

Ben Nelson says abortion funds means 'no' vote


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