Senate Compromise on Health Care Reform: Political Genius?

Joe Flower PrefferedDemocrat Roland Burris, the sudden senator who replaced Barack Obama in that august body, has now joined those who are pledging to filibuster any bill that does not have a “public option” – joining of course those, like Connecticut’s infigurable Joe Lieberman who will filibuster if it does have a “public option.” But the compromise that is brewing may turn all such pledges inside out. The compromise would allow 55 to 65-year-olds to buy into Medicare, while letting under-55s without insurance into the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan, along with mandates to buy in, and subsidies for those who can’t afford it. If this does indeed emerge, liberal Democrats in both houses may have some trouble defining what they mean by the “public option” they are so strongly demangin. Is it a “public option” for 55-and-overs if they can buy into Medicare? Sure sounds like it – a government-run plan that people can buy into, in competition with private plans. Is it a “public option” if the federal Office of Personnel Management runs an exchange called the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan (FEHBP) setting the rules and transparency for private plans, with subsidies and tax credits for those 54 and under who can’t afford a health plan?Sounds close, but not quite. Close enough for confusion, at least.

And that, in a way, is the point. The political intelligence behind the compromise is precisely that, on an issue where the two sides had come to sharply differing opinions, with both sides digging in their heels, the compromise fuzzes the lines. It replaces the bland phrase “public option,” which has come to mean “the savior of the people” for some and “creeping socialism” for others, with Medicare, which politicians regularly praise and promise to save, and the FEHBP, which politicians have often praised, saying that everyone should have one at least as good as Congesspeople and the President get.

The compromise, like all real compromises, is a kludge and a mess and a camel made by committee, but politically it has a certain genius. If the goal is to get a bill passed, this just might work.