Wednesday 30 September 2009

Have your cake and eat it too

There are plenty of reasons for health reform supporters to be optimistic. Hoyer is among those echoing Schumer’s sentiments – the Finance Committee was the most conservative and the most hostile to health reform, but the Senate floor and the House-Senate conference will be friendlier terrain. Recent polls show that Americans not only want better health care but are willing to increase taxes to get it, and that after two months of anti-reform obstruction in the Baucus committee, Americans complain that Congress isn’t listening to them. And here’s confidence for you: not long ago Obama said he wouldn’t go to Copenhagen because he was needed for the health care fight, but guess where he decided to go after all?

A special source of optimism is that the arguments of the anti-reform forces are getting weaker and sillier. Baucus is arguing that nobody has shown him how to get to 60, which is silly, while Lincoln is arguing that her constituents don’t want the public option, which is also hogwash. Those who argue for more compromise are dwindling away, since the Democrats kept tossing out their ideas and putting in Republicans to win them over, and still got not a single GOP vote. Americans, who enjoy reliable public water and public power and public highways and public sewers and public medical research and Medicare and Medicaid and the VA and everything else, are rejecting the argument that public health care is suddenly a dangerous idea. Democrats are preemptively shooting down the meme that somehow a 51-vote majority doesn’t count anymore -- in the last 20 years, when the Republicans have controlled Congress they have passed legislation with fewer than 60 votes almost twice as often, which also shows that Democrats are more likely to be bipartisan. Reform opponents wouldn’t use lame arguments if they had good ones – and this summer shows that they ran out of sensible arguments long ago. The GOP has been so nakedly obstructionist that even Bobby Jindal has admonished them to grow up and work constructively on the issue.

But the lesson in all that is that some of the shaky arguments have been made by Democrats: Baucus, Lincoln, Nelson. They may just be positioning themselves politically in case they do support reform in the end, but somebody is going to need to give them the “Are you a Democrat or not?” lecture. White House folks are already talking to these people constantly, but I think they need to start shifting to “yes, we’re going to try to accommodate your needs on the bill itself, but in return you better get your ass in line on cloture.” I’ve been calling this the “have your cake and eat it too” strategy – get Democrats to vote “yes” on cloture and then “no” on the bill if they choose. They could even try out the pitch on the ladies from Maine – Collins is a stickler for procedure, and she might be offended by the idiotic GOP claims that, contrary to the Constitution and 200 years of legislative tradition, 51 votes is no longer enough to pass a law.

Harkin is demanding that Democrats commit to cloture, and Crooks And Liars says there are 57 votes for cloture already (who are the last three? Nelson, Lieberman, who?).

And here’s the hole card (or one of them, anyway) – the Democratic Senators know that Obama can and will use reconciliation if he needs to. So the question is not…

“Are you willing to defy your president and your party, on a bill that the American people want, on a filibuster?”

…the question is…

“Are you willing to defy your president and your party, on a bill that the American people want, on a DOOMED filibuster that Obama is going to trump with reconciliation anyway?”

If the Blue Dogs don’t get the message from the White House, they might start listening to their constituents. Collins, Snowe, Lincoln, Pryor and Baucus are all seeing the polls from their home states – their constituents are much more liberal than they thought. The Maine folks want Snowe (and presumably Collins) to ignore their party if need be, and are cooling to the idea of reelecting her; the folks in Montana and Arkansas want real reform. And when the Finance Committee trashed the public option, liberal groups got hundreds of thousands of donations in a single day, a sneak preview of the kind of money liberals will use to destroy the Blue Dogs in 2010. Liberal fundraisers and advertisers are already targeting the Blue Dogs.

Other strategic factors are becoming more apparent:

Baucus’ absurd assertion that no one has shown him how to get to 60 votes may actually be true – the White House, which reportedly is leaving him out of the process of merging the two Senate bills, may have simply decided that trying to explain their strategy to Baucus was just not worth the bother.
The White House is still schmoozing Blue Dogs and the ladies from Maine – Emanuel is personally working on Collins the deficit hawk.
The House is working on passing a bill with a public option tied to Medicare, a quite liberal formula which will help to push the House-Senate conference report hard to the left.
Reid is cancelling the Columbus Day recess, which will deprive the GOP of a week to stir up town-hall trouble, and is publicly planning to start Senate floor debate on health care that week, which will distract Republicans by impelling them to fight that timeline more, and fight the actual terms of the bill less, just as they did in July.
The White House is preparing a wide range of legislative drafts, including budget numbers, so that whatever situation Obama finds himself in, in the ninth inning, he can slap the appropriate proposal on the table and say “how about that as a compromise?” Gibbs is denying that they are doing that sort of homework, but I think they are.
During all this, key players – Obama, Snowe, Ben Nelson – will keep their options open as long as possible, but eventually if Obama wants the public option he will need to step out and say it. A key thing to watch is whether the public option is in the first bill to be discussed on the Senate floor: if it is already in there in the beginning, they don’t need to get cloture to add it as an amendment. The fewer times they need to climb the 60-vote filibuster mountain, the better.

We are still hearing more from GOP obstructionists and Democratic surrender monkeys. Carper is offering a plan which would empower states to set up government plans or coops or purchasing pools – too small and weak unless the states can band together – while Cantwell proposes letting the states negotiate with the insurers, which has already proved unworkable. Cantwell may offer her option on the Senate floor; Snowe may offer her trigger option on the floor too. Grassley is already promising to fight the public option on the floor.

This health reform battle is going to teach both sides a lot about what will happen in the coming political battles: climate change, gays in the military, Afghanistan, the works.

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