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Senate Dems to Obama: Um, a Little Help Here?

After a weekend of furious activity, Democratic leaders in the Senate think they are close to getting the votes they need in order to pass an "opt-out" version of the public option.

But they feel like President Obama could be doing more to help them, with one senior staffer telling TNR on Sunday that the leadership would like, but has yet to receive, a clear "signal" of support for their effort.

The White House, for its part, says President Obama supports a strong public option, as he always has--and that, as one senior administration official puts it, the president will support the Senate leadership in "whichever way" it chooses to go on this particular question.

Read those statements carefully and you'll see they don't actually contradict each other. Instead, they offer a pretty good picture of where the public option debate is at the beginning of a week that could quite possibly decide its fate.

For those just tuning in, the underlying issue here is whether to create a government-run insurance program into which people could enroll voluntarily and that might, ideally, provide more affordable coverage while providing the private insurance industry with much-needed competition. As recently as two or three weeks ago, many observers (this writer included) thought the idea was more or less dead politically.

But interest in the public option has surged, thanks in part to anger at the insurance industry and the idea's resiliency in opinion surveys. Supporters of the public plan have made headway by seizing on a proposed compromise first introduced by Delaware Senator Tom Carper--a proposal under which the federal government would create some sort of national public plan, but still allow states to opt out of it.

Key liberal proponents of the public plan, like Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, have indicated they could support an opt-out. More important, key centrist Senators have hinted some they might be amenable to such a proposal, as well. According to several Capitol Hill sources, those statements--along with private conversations between the leadership and their members--have convinced Democrat leaders it's possible to pass an opt-out. In fact, they think may be just one or two votes away from sixty, the number necessary to break a filibuster. (Not every senator who votes to break the filibuster would necessarily vote for the final plan.)

But when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid briefed the president at the White House on Wednesday, Obama responded with a series of tough questions--not rejecting the idea, but not rushing to embrace it, either. When word of that meeting leaked out, public option supporters took Obama's reaction to mean that the administration continued to prefer the "trigger" compromise, under which a failure by private insurers to deliver affordable coverage would trigger the creation of a public plan.

Maine Senator Olympia Snowe, the lone Republican working with Democrats on health care, favors a trigger. And it's no secret that the administration has worked hard to keep her on board--either because Obama wants at least one Republican vote, because he believes losing her might mean losing some moderate Democrats, or some combination thereof.

Whatever his reasons--and it's possible only Obama himself knows--his reaction prompted complaints that generated headlines in the Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo, among others. The administration responded by stating, clearly, it was not trying to undercut the Senate leadership. But it still did not go out of its way to support the opt-out--something the Senate leadership noticed, according to the senior staffer.

The administration could send a signal, in some form or fashion, that they support the Democratic leadership's proposal to include this public option with a state opt-out in the bill. ... a word of support from the president, from [administration spokesman Robert] Gibbs at the podium, any number of ways ... any indication of support would be appreciated by the leadership.

This staffer added that administration officials "seem more interested in pursuing an Olympia Snowe strategy."

The administration, meanwhile, continued to say what it was saying late last week: That Obama wants the strongest possible public option that the Senate will approve--and that it stands behind Reid's effort to build that support. On Sunday, a senior administration official told TNR

We will be 100 percent behind whichever direction Reid decides to go. ... Reid hasn't asked for help. He is polling his caucus to make a decision on the opt out or the trigger. Whichever way he chooses, president Obama will help make the sale publicly and privately.

Late in the day, the White House also posted a statement to its website:

A rumor is making the rounds that the White House and Senator Reid are pursuing different strategies on the public option.  Those rumors are absolutely false.

In his September 9th address to Congress, President Obama made clear that he supports the public option because it has the potential to play an essential role in holding insurance companies accountable through choice and competition.  That continues to be the President's position. 

Senator Reid and his leadership team are now working to get the most effective bill possible approved by the Senate. President Obama completely supports their efforts and has full confidence they will succeed and continue the unprecedented progress that is being made in both the House and Senate.

Again, the statements of the senior Senate staffer and senior administration official--each one saying what several other similarly placed sources have said, on background--are not as inconsistent as they might seem at first blush.

On the contrary, it seems pretty clear (at least to me) that Obama really would prefer a strong public option--but that he, like his advisers, has serious concerns over whether such an option can pass. In other words, he wants a good public plan but he wants a bill even more--and he's not sure that the former is compatible with the latter. So he's being careful--more careful, in fact, than some of his Senate allies would like.

Updated: I fleshed out the post with some analysis, as promised in the initial posting.