Will Sen. Joe Lieberman filibuster health care reform, or won't he?

How to fix health policy.
Nov. 3 2009 1:35 PM

Liebermania

Will Joe Lieberman filibuster health care reform, or won't he?

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Joe Lieberman. Click image to expand.
Sen. Joe Lieberman 

As a public service, I offer this chronology of Sen. Joe Lieberman's positions on health care reform. Please note that it begins a mere 72 days ago.

Aug. 23, 2009: In response to angry town-hall meetings on health care reform, Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats (until 2006, he was a Democrat himself) says of health care reform: "I'm afraid we've got to think about putting a lot of that off until the economy is out of recession."

Sept. 17, 2009: Lieberman joins a bipartisan group of senators praising Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the finance committee, for taking "an important and critical step forward" in his chairman's mark—one of the Senate's two main health care bills.

Oct. 6, 2009: Lieberman joins a bipartisan group demanding that the actual text of the finance committee's bill be posted online prior to the vote. This is a stalling tactic  cooked up by finance committee member Jim Bunning, R-Ky., who opposes the bill; on the markup's first day, Bunning declared that it "tramples on American freedom and liberty." The finance committee typically does not provide legislative text prior to a vote, and it does not do so here. The legislative text has since been made public.

Oct. 13, 2009: The finance bill, which contains no public option, wins final committee passage over the opposition of Bunning and every other committee Republican except for Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. Lieberman says he won't support it "the way it is now." His opposition comes one day after the insurance lobby, which previously had been expected to support the finance bill, or at least hold its fire, releases a report attacking it. Connecticut is home to 72 insurance companies, including Aetna, a major player in the health-insurance industry whose PAC and employees have this year given Lieberman $65,200.

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Oct. 16, 2009: The New Haven Register quotes Lieberman saying he is "inclined to" vote for "the motion to proceed," even though he may still vote against the bill itself on final passage. But "I haven't decided yet." On Oct. 23, a Lieberman aide tells Politico the same thing. These statements are widely interpreted to mean Lieberman is "inclined to" oppose a filibuster against the bill.

Oct. 27, 2009: Lieberman says he will join a Republican filibuster against health care reform if it contains a public option or anything else he disagrees with. The "motion to proceed" that he previously said he was "inclined to" vote for is the one that allows debate on health care reform to begin, Lieberman explains, not the cloture vote that brings debate to an end and allows health care reform to be voted up or down on a simple majority.

Oct. 30, 2009: Lieberman says he will campaign for some Republican candidates in 2010, just as he campaigned for Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008. "I feel relevant," he says in a conference call with Connecticut reporters.

Nov. 1: In an appearance on CBS News' Face the Nation, Lieberman escalates his rhetoric against the public option. It was "raised in the last year by people who really want to have a government-controlled health insurance system," he says. He says that by making the public option a "litmus test," its proponents are "stopping us from getting something done." This suggests that Lieberman wants to move quickly on health reform, but previously (see Aug. 23) Lieberman said he wanted to move slowly on full-scale health reform. It also suggests that Lieberman would support health care reform without a public option, but previously (see Oct. 13) Lieberman came out against the Senate finance bill, which contains no public option. When asked whether having no bill would be preferable to having a bill with a public option, Lieberman says yes: "I think we ought to follow, if I may, the—the doctor's oath here. … In Congress as we deal with health care reform, do no harm."

Nov. 2, 2009: Alexander Bolton reports in The Hill that Lieberman has reached "a private understanding" with Sen. Majority leader Harry Reid "that he will not [italics mine] block a final vote on healthcare reform, according to two sources briefed on the matter." One source tells The Hill: "Lieberman keeps assuring Reid that he's OK. But he's one of those characters—you never know with Joe. Maybe he's talking tough to get the public option watered down or he's trying to get some stuff for himself on other topics or on other sections of the legislation."

Lieberman spokesman Marshall Wittman contradicts this by saying that Lieberman's position remains what it was last week: "Sen. Lieberman has made it clear that he will vote for the motion to proceed to the health care bill but will oppose cloture on a final bill if it contains a public option because he believes that it would worsen our national debt problem."

Maybe the contradiction can be resolved by an unspoken assumption on Reid's part that the public option will be jettisoned before final passage—plus an unspoken assumption on Lieberman's part that after the public option is jettisoned (and perhaps after one or two additional changes are made to appease insurers), Lieberman will vote against a filibuster (but still might oppose the bill itself on final passage, when his vote doesn't matter anymore).

Or maybe Lieberman is making all of this up as he goes along.

Update, 4 p.m.: Reid's office, like Lieberman's, denies such a "private understanding" exists.

E-mail Timothy Noah at chatterbox@slate.com.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.