Lieberman on Reid plan: "No"

Harry Reid may feel the wind at his back for the moment, but it doesn’t blow much past Joe Lieberman.  While Reid tries to sell the public option to moderate Democrats like Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln to avoid a filibuster, the solidly liberal Lieberman digs in his heels in opposition to it.  In fact, he promises to be “stubborn” on the issue:

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, speaking in that trademark sonorous baritone, utters a simple statement that translates into real trouble for Democratic leaders: “I’m going to be stubborn on this.”

Stubborn, he means, in opposing any health-care overhaul that includes a “public option,” or government-run health-insurance plan, as the current bill does. His opposition is strong enough that Mr. Lieberman says he won’t vote to let a bill come to a final vote if a public option is included.

Probe for a catch or caveat in that opposition, and none is visible. Can he support a public option if states could opt out of the plan, as the current bill provides? “The answer is no,” he says in an interview from his Senate office. “I feel very strongly about this.” How about a trigger, a mechanism for including a public option along with a provision saying it won’t be used unless private insurance plans aren’t spreading coverage far and fast enough? No again.

So any version of a public option will compel Mr. Lieberman to vote against bringing a bill to a final vote? “Correct,” he says.

This is, of course, more than just one senator objecting to one part of health legislation. This is the former Democratic vice presidential nominee, now an independent, Joe Lieberman, still counted on to be the 60th vote Democrats will need to force a final vote on health legislation. In opposing a public option, he is opposing the element some Democratic liberals have come to consider the cornerstone of a health-care bill.

In fact, it’s a little bit more than even that.  It will be difficult for red-state moderates up for re-election in 2010 to vote for the bill while a man who was on the Democratic Party’s national ticket remains “stubborn” against it.  A vote by Blanche Lincoln, Ben Nelson, or Byron Dorgan to clear the bill for a final floor vote while Lieberman supports a filibuster will not go unnoticed by their conservative constituencies.

Why is Lieberman remaining stubborn?  He told the Wall Street Journal that “we have to start saying no to some things like this,” with deficits skyrocketing and government spending out of control.  Lieberman would support an incremental approach rather than the overhaul Reid proposes, and especially something without a new government entitlement.

Unfortunately for Reid, his progressives have also dug in their heels.  They will not support a bill without a public option, which means Reid has a lot of tapdancing to do to get this bill past a cloture vote.  He either needs to reach across the aisle to secure Republican votes — which would mean a large-scale rewriting of the bill — or attempt to whip his caucus hard to get his vote.  And Lieberman’s opposition will make that all but impossible.

This is not over by a long shot.