Why Lieberman is Opposing Public Option, for Now

When Harry Reid told reporters last Tuesday that Joe Lieberman was the least of his problems, he wasn't kidding. The Connecticut senator—who is technically an independent—had just announced that he'd vote against Reid's health-reform bill unless the public-option provision changes. But Lieberman will vote to allow the bill to proceed to the floor, a concession some of his moderate colleagues aren't yet prepared to make.

Already angered over his dalliances with Republicans in the last election, critics pounced, accusing Lieberman of being in the pocket of Connecticut's health-insurance industry. "I know people impute motives," Lieberman told NEWSWEEK. "But I am not at all defensive of the insurance companies." He said he'd vote to remove the antitrust exemptions on the industry, for example. But Lieberman worries that a public option creates a new, expensive entitlement when the country is already saddled with debt, perched precariously on the verge of recovery. Right now he's so concerned he's prepared to let the entire bill fail—including reforms like insurance exchanges, which he calls "extraordinarily important."

"But I want to get to the debate. I want to have the opportunity to try to amend," he says.

Several Democratic advisers told NEWSWEEK they weren't surprised by Lieberman's objections—he often publicly equivocates. One senate adviser scoffed that it helped him get on Sunday's Face the Nation. "It is characteristic of a lot of senators, Lieberman among them, to make strong pronouncements that have the effect of making them a central player," the aide said. But, with negotiations to get the bill to the floor at a "fragile" place, Reid's office was taken aback by the timing.

Public-plan proponents don't see Lieberman's announcement as the death knell for the public option. A senior White House official told NEWSWEEK there will undoubtedly be a public option in the final bill. The administration is working with a half dozen moderate senators, including Lieberman, to ameliorate their concerns, and they are "very close" to getting agreement. Although Lieberman's remarks grabbed headlines, they failed to make him a central focus for the White House. "We're doing the same thing with him we're doing with everyone," the official said.

At least until the final vote happens, Lieberman won't need to worry about his place in the Democratic caucus. "We went through this whole process in November with the caucus, and the caucus spoke," Reid's spokesman told NEWSWEEK. Senators do seem reluctant to criticize him, perhaps concerned that they'll alienate him before votes are counted. Or maybe they've just seen this show before. As one Democratic aide put it, "It's Senator Lieberman being Senator Lieberman."