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Back From the Death Panel

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Such criticisms haven’t gone unnoticed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, in no small part because Weiner—in a testament to his consistency, lunacy, inability to shut up, or all three—hasn’t shied away from making them directly. Indeed, on a recent flight back to Washington from New York on Air Force One, I’m told by one congressman who witnessed the scene, Weiner got into a testy exchange with Obama over the former’s ideas about how the latter might better prosecute the case for reform. When I ask Weiner about the incident, he refuses to divulge details, but notes that when it was over, the president said to him drily, “I hope you’re enjoying your last trip on Air Force One.” “He was kidding—I think,” adds Weiner.

In truth, Weiner has been on the receiving end of zero complaints from the White House for his potshots. “I see Rahm [Emanuel] at the House gym every morning, and he’s never beefed to me about this once,” Weiner says. “I think he needs this pressure from the left—it serves them. They needed someone to generate the heat of their base to give them the space to be the moderate voice. I’m convinced that if it weren’t me, they’d have to create me.”

Weiner’s theory is self-serving, but it makes a kind of sense. Over the summer, Weiner, by threatening to bottle up a vote on the main House health-care bill in the Energy and Commerce Committee, forced House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to grant him a floor vote this fall on a single-payer plan. Weiner believes in single-payer as a matter of policy—but he also sees the political advantage of putting forward a proposal that will at once satisfy certain elements of the base and create the appearance that the public option is itself a compromise toward the center. And his adamant advocacy of a robust public option itself generates breathing room for the sort of modified version that might win approval in both the House and Senate.

What Weiner has no doubt about now is that the final legislation will include just such a provision—because without it, there simply aren’t the votes in the House to pass a bill. “I think President Obama will put his finger on the scale at some point,” he says. In the end, it’s going to be simpler to corral one or two senators to accept a public option with some modifications than it’s going to be to get a hundred House members off their rebellious screed.

From what Weiner can divine from Emanuel and others in the White House, this kind of brass-tacks calculation—not the policy merits, not even the long-range political ramifications—is all that matters now. Obama’s bizarro, out-of-nowhere acquisition of the Nobel Peace Prize at the end of last week notwithstanding, the president has had a rough few months and badly needs to put a win on the board. And no one is looking to make that any harder than it’s been already.

To illustrate why that means the public option will prevail, Weiner colorfully sketches out his vision of the endgame: “Obama goes to Nancy and says, ‘I’ve decided I’m giving up the public option.’ And she says, ‘Well, dude, I can’t get this done then.’ So then he goes to Harry Reid and says, ‘We’re going with the public option. What do we have to do in Nebraska to get Ben Nelson onboard?’ That’s a much easier conversation.”

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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