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Schumer: Brains and Brawn at Work

If the Senate passes a health care reform bill that includes a public insurance option, Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) will likely get much of the credit given his tireless pursuit of a compromise on the issue.

Early in 2009, Schumer was one of the first Senators to suggest that any public option compete against private insurers on a “level playing field— and not have rates tied to Medicare. That led to his advocacy of a public option from which states could opt out. He lost a vote on the plan in the Finance Committee, but he succeeded — albeit with a chorus of liberal supporters behind him — in persuading Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to choose that plan as the starting point for Senate floor debate on the bill.

But in promoting the public option, Schumer may have pushed Reid to alienate both Democratic centrists and the one Republican vote he was most likely to secure — that of Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine). Snowe and many Democratic centrists prefer to set up a “trigger— by which a public option would be created only if private insurers do not reduce costs and increase coverage on their own.

Regardless of whether the Senate has 60 votes to pass a bill with a public option, however, Schumer’s gambit will likely pay off politically in the short term for him and for Reid, who has a tough re-election race next year. Both will be able to argue to the liberal base that they pushed for the most “progressive— option. And if the public option fails to overcome a filibuster, they will have plenty of cover on the left for going with a trigger or some other option.

Whatever policy prescription rises to the top, Schumer will certainly be one of the key Members of leadership whipping votes for the bill, given his close relationships with his fellow Democrats — 17 of whom he helped elect in 2006 and 2008 when he headed the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. During Schumer’s tenure at the DSCC, Democrats seized control of the Senate and then saw their majority inflate to almost 60 seats.

Schumer’s experience at the campaign committee, coupled with the fact that his own re-election is assured in 2010, means he’ll also be part of the Senate Democratic team spreading the political message on health care reform as the 2010 elections approach.

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