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Bill Nelson Says No to the Public Option “Opt-Out”

Sen. Bill Nelson was on MSNBC with David Shuster talking about the AHIP
extortion attempt report about insurance premiums, which he rightly dismissed. (“You have to look at who produced the report. The insurance industry did.”) After saying that the Senate Finance Committee would pass the bill tomorrow with all Democrats supporting it “to get it out of the committee,” Shuster asked:

SHUSTER: I’ve gotta ask you a question about a proposal that started percolating last week. And this is about the public option. You voted against the Rockefeller plan, and I believe you voted for the Schumer plan for the public option. There’s a proposal that’s now circulating out there that would be essentially an opt-out for the states, the idea that you would start with a public option in the plan, and then leave it to the states, in your case Florida, to decide if they want to opt out. Would that merit your support?

NELSON: Um, no. I think we ought to have the competition of the insurance companies, and that’s the Schumer amendment that I voted for, and I think it ought to be available in all markets, each of the states. The idea is, let the free market competition really determine what the rates are. But to keep those market conditions without keeping the premiums artificially high, put the government insurance company in there. But that company has to compete on the same rules as everybody else…

Shuster then asked, what if Baucus and Kent Conrad go to him and say “we just don’t have the votes,” would he be amenable to the opt-out? And Nelson said he’d rather go with Olympia Snowe’s trigger in that case. Shuster asked why, wouldn’t the opt-out plan be a bit stronger, and Nelson said:

NELSON: I think it’s the opposite. I think the trigger would be more important, otherwise you could have a state which would say, well, the insurance companies lobbied that state, and they just completely did what the insurance companies wanted and they took away the public option.

Nelson, a former state Insurance Commissioner in a state with a Republican legislature and Governor, probably understands that an opt out would mean that Florida gets bubkus. Obviously, his positive comments on the trigger mean he’s itching to sell out, but not in a way that would deny his constituents at least a fig leaf of a benefit. The politics of the opt-out haven’t been thought out entirely by supporters; in states like Florida it probably loses Democratic votes. Debbie Wasserman Schultz basically said the same thing today on the Young Turks radio show:

CENK UYGUR: The opt out idea is pretty simple. You get the public option by the federal government, but different states can opt out of it, but they have to actively, proactively opt out of it, either through their state legislator, or maybe even a referendum, or act of the governor, or combination thereof. And then that gives red state senators, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans….

DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Then we’re not providing the necessary competition and choice for Americans in those states.

CENK UYGUR: That’s definitely a downside of it. The upside of it is it takes away all excuses. If you say, “Hey listen, I’m not comfortable with the public option.” Great then your state doesn’t have to have it.

DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: No, but we have mixed delegations Cenk, where we have Republicans… I don’t know… I have to spend some more time hearing about that. In my state we’ve got 10 Democrats and 15 Republicans and a split on our Senators. I wouldn’t want to be duking it out with the rest of my delegation on who wins, on whether or not we do or don’t participate in the public option. And I certainly wouldn’t want Charlie Christ to be able to make the decision. And he is our governor.

If the opt out doesn’t bring in additional votes and in fact loses some, I’m not sure why it’s being discussed as an option.

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David Dayen

David Dayen