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Bad News for Public Option?

The Senate Finance Committee voted today on two amendments which attempted to insert a public option into its health care bill. Both amendments failed. The first amendment, sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, would have benchmarked the public option to Medicare rates. That amendment failed 15-8, with all Republicans joining Democrats Max Baucus, Kent Conrad, Bill Nelson, Tom Carper and Blanche Lincoln in opposition. The second amendment, a version sponsored by Chuck Schumer that would have created a level playing field for the public option, failed 13-10, with Carper and Nelson voting in favor but Lincoln, Baucus and Conrad remaining opposed.

The overall margins are probably about what we might have anticipated going in, but some of the individual votes were surprising. Baucus, who had told his constituents that he wanted a public option, voted against it, as did the waffling Lincoln. But Carper, who had suggested that he’d only vote for a public option with a trigger, supported Schumer’s version, which did not include a trigger, as did another fence-sitter, Bill Nelson, who had made similar statements.

Here are a couple of relatively self-evident things I think we can conclude from these votes:

1) A “robust” public option like Rockefeller’s, which sets reimbursement at Medicare plus five percent and lacks a trigger, almost certainly will not pass the Senate. That this version of the public option failed to obtain any of the five or six plausible “swing votes” suggests that it probably wouldn’t receive the support of more than about 47-48 members of the chamber.

2) A weak public option may still get 50 votes in the Senate, although it almost certainly won’t get 60. There are still plenty of reasonable whip counts under which you can get into the range of 50-53 votes for a weak public option. It is not clear, however, whether 50 votes or 60 votes will ultimately be required for the inclusion of a public option; this may very much be up to Harry Reid and the floor leadership.

3) Preventing the public option from charging Medicare rates may weaken it as much as adding a trigger. Nelson and Carper, who had indicated they’d support a public option only if it included a trigger, voted for the trigger-less version from Schmuer. This may reflect a point I had made a couple of weeks ago: it’s not clear to me that a Schumer-type public option which lacks a trigger but must abide by “level playing field” provisions is any better than one that contains a trigger but could charge Medicare rates if it were enacted.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.