On a conference call with Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA), who is challenging Arlen Specter in a US Senate Democratic primary, he took a couple shots at his opponent’s newfound appreciation for the public option, but would not join the Progressive Block in the House that has vowed not to vote for any health care bill unless the public option was included.

Sestak held the call after an rally in Philadelphia announcing his endorsement from Ned Lamont, the former Senate candidate who beat Joe Lieberman in a Democratic primary in Connecticut in 2006. The campaign is loudly touting this endorsement. Sestak vowed to “model his campaign” after Lamont’s, and Lamont, who was also on the call, praised Sestak as someone who “knows where he is” on the issues. Lamont said that, while the political establishment doesn’t think much of primaries, he feels they are good for the party, energize the electorate, and give voters a choice.

After a few questions on the FISA law and climate change, I asked Congressman Sestak about Arlen Specter’s appearance on Fox News Sunday this weekend, where he said that the public option is “gaining momentum” and renewed his focus to “not back up a bit” in advocating for it. I asked Sestak if he were willing to go further than Specter, and vow not to support any bill on health care that did not include a public option.

“First of all, thanks to Arlen Specter for following my leadership. We’ve seen this on card check and now on the public option. It’s hard to control Arlen Specter; the White House has to provide the carrot and I have to provide the stick,” Sestak said, returning to what will be a common theme of Specter taking positions for political reasons over principle.

On the core question, Sestak said that the public option is “an absolute requirement” to reform the heavily concentrated insurance market in America. But he stopped short of joining the Progressive Block, saying that, while it would be very difficult to vote against a bill without the public option, he would also have a hard time not voting for something. He relayed a story about visiting his daughter in the hospital when she had a malignant brain tumor. She received high-quality care as part of his military benefits, but he kept thinking about families who weren’t covered in the same way. “The Baucus bill (from the Senate Finance Committee) is so inadequate because there’s no public option,” Sestak said. “But we have to cover people.”

Over 60 members of the House of Representatives have signaled their willingness to only vote for a bill out of their chamber of Congress if it contains a public option.

David Dayen

David Dayen