Most of the political media, many of the people in Congress, even Harry Reid himself may not have realized it yet, but Monday, Reid crossed the Rubicon. Like Julius Caesar stepped across the point with his progressive base. Reid can't back down and expect to be cheered for trying his best. To fail now would prove him a weak, worthless, ineffectual leader. Nationally, progressives will begin to seriously ask, “would we be better off with one fewer Democratic senator but Chuck Schumer as Majority Leader?” If the public option opt-out dies in the Senate, or is seriously watered down, there will be hell to pay.
Reid has left his party with no safe outs. Democrats have only three different opportunities to eliminate or water down the (already watered) public option opt-out. First, Reid can go back on his word and strip the provision before bringing the bill to the floor. While the Senate bill is not yet final, as far as the Democratic base is concerned, it is a done deal. To singlehandedly raise the hopes of the progressive community only to quickly smash them could have devastating consequences for Reid. It would prove that a mere threat from Joe Lieberman could completely cause Reid to abandon his principles. This move would make him look incredibly weak. Reid would be abandoning the wishes of a majority of his caucus, the Congress, the Democratic party, and the country simply because Lieberman kind of threatened him.
The second opportunity is when the bill is first brought to the floor--where a handful of Democrats could vote against allowing debate to proceed. The plan would then be for Reid to bring a modified version of the bill up a week later without the public option, after saying “oh well I tried.” This would be incredibly dangerous to the party, and would require of conspiracy of stupidity to even attempt. Letting the first vote on health care reform go down in flames would be depicted as a huge setback in the media.
The two to four senators who voted against allowing the bill to proceed to debate would be cut off from the labor movement and declared pariahs by the grassroots. PACs would instantly be formed, with the single goal of making sure those Democrats never get re-elected. Any argument that attacking these Senators could result in electing a Republican would fall on deaf ears. If a “Democrat” will actively fight against his party on a procedural vote about the number one issue for most Democrats, they might as well be Republicans.
If Reid thinks that move will deflect heat from him, he's in for a rude awakening. The progressives will demand the defiant Senators have their seniority stripped, and Reid will be blamed for failing to strong-arm the last few members. Much of the blow-back will also hit Obama. Unless he is practically on the Senate floor screaming at the members to vote as a caucus, he will have zero credibility left with the base. The base will demand the bill gets moved through reconciliation, not watered down further. Reid has the power to pass reform with a simple majority, and it will be his fault for not using it. Trying to move forward with a much weaker bill will need to be done over the objection of a very angry and betrayed base.
The final opportunity to water down or kill the public option is with amendments, but any amendment to change the public option would require 60 votes. Even assuming all the Republicans would be willing to vote for an amendment to water down the public option (I don't see that happening), it would still take 20 Democratic senators to make it happen. I don't see where Reid will find the 20-plus Democratic votes to cripple the public option, especially if Reid does not want to be one of those votes. Those 20 Democrats might try to explain that voting to kill the public option was necessary for “compromise,” but regardless, they will be labeled “public option killers.” It is a title that will hang like a dead weight on any Democrat.
I know many attempts are going to be made to cripple or kill the public option before health care reform passes. I wouldn't be surprised if it did get watered down at some point. I just can't see how it will happen without blowing up in Reid's and several other Democratic senators' faces. Reid may not know it, but he is across the Rubicon. He got his base expecting a real public option. With the power of reconciliation, Reid can get a public option passed is he was truly determined to. If he fails on his promise to deliver on the public option he will have no one to blame but himself, and will look incredibly weak going into the 2010 election.