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Healthcare reform: Can Democrats give up public option?

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But he also signaled that a public option won't be part of that bill. “Senate Democrats know the importance of passing healthcare reform and also know that to get it passed, we need 60 votes,” he said after the caucus meeting today. With the loss of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, Democrats – including the two Independents who vote with them – are down to 59.

The public option is a non-starter for Republicans, too. But for now, the minority party isn't the issue. Democrats need to rally their own members around a bill and restore momentum to their president’s agenda.

The great divide

On one side of the intra-party fault line are the dozens of conservatives and moderates that gave Democrats their majorities in the House and Senate. Many got hammered at home over the August recess by voters alarmed at the prospects of a big government role in healthcare.

On the other side are party progressives who campaigned on a public option and don’t want to see it negotiated away. They say the public alternative to private health insurance is critical, because it gives private insurers incentive to lower the cost of healthcare

“It’s important to have a genuine incentive to insurance companies to respond. Otherwise, the only incentive for them is just to accept more payments and then go on doing what they’ve done before,” says Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D) of Hawaii, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

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