Monday 19 October 2009

Blue Dogs warming to the opt-out

Okay, okay, here's the short version.

The public option is getting more support from the polls and the media. The Congressional Blue Dogs, facing more pressure from their constituents, are starting to “frame” their position, saying they will not accept a public option linked to Medicare, but are warming up to the opt-out proposal, although Lieberman is still playing with fire by screwing with Obama both on health care and on czars. Other Democratic strategists are reminding the Republicans (and the Blue Dogs) that they have other tools they can win with – the conference report and reconciliation (although so far they are not talking up the notion of having people vote yes on cloture and then no on the bill itself); even the Republicans are starting to admit tacitly that the Democrats may very well stick together on the public option. Reid is talking tough about delivering the goods, presumably because he knows he can’t survive if they pass a crappy wimpy bill; Obama, who also realizes the need for a strong bill, is still hanging back, but will soon need to step in and lead, for a number of reasons – but when he does, a lot of people will fall in line.

Now, a whole lot of details about all this.

A new ABC poll shows, again, that the American people want the public option, not bipartisanship for its own sake, and the NY Times also endorsed the public option.

Reid is running ads all over Nevada, claiming he’s guy who can “deliver in a way that no one else can”. So with the problems he already has back home, he knows he can’t deliver a crappy bill, so perhaps his tough talk in the ad betokens his confidence that a good bill is coming. In Washington Reid is, annoyingly, still playing more of a birthing coach that a leader, still mooing about the 60-vote barrier, but still, there’s that ad. So perhaps for him it’s about the bill itself, rather than him doing a lap around the rotunda wearing a Superman cape. The ad is a good sign.

Obama does want the public option – he wouldn’t be pushing Pelosi to keep pushing the House bill to the left if he was just going to cave. He has been noncommittal all summer in order to make talks with the Republicans possible and keep the Finance committee from collapsing, but a lot of people – includingCongressional Democrats – want to see Obama honest-to-God lead, and not just because of the health care issue. The good news is that when he does step in, some wobbly Blue Dogs will finally fall in line. Hopefully, enough of them.

As we learned from the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act of 1988, the American people will indeed rebel against a bad health care plan. The MCCA was so bad it was repealed after a year. By the same token, if we do have an individual mandate, but do NOT have the public option, then millions of people will be forced to buy from the private insurers, who have just PROMISED us all gigantic rate increases. Under those circumstances, a rebellion – right during the 2010 midterms -- is certain. Add to that the fact that Obama has made clear that he doesn’t want to sign a bad bill, i.e. one that would start a REAL national teabagger riot. All this leads inescapably to the conclusion that Obama is unlikely to sign anything that looks even remotely like the Baucus fiasco, or triggers.
Axelrod is still talking about solving all this in the House-Senate conference, which could be risky. Hopefully the White House is just reminding the Republicans of how many paths to victory there are for Obama – just like Harkin is ostentatiously wheeling out the reconciliation weapon. Read on:

Democrats are test-driving the reconciliation process, which they can use to pass health reform with 50 votes if getting 60 for cloture proves problematic. They are testing out the reconciliation process by using it on a different issue, shifting student loan money away from subsidizing private lending and toward Pell Grants, which would move about $9 billion a year from bankers to students. This will be a great test of the reconciliation prospects for health care, because a lot of the same people are involved: Harkin is pushing for the student loan bill, the Republicans and a couple of Blue Dogs oppose it, and the Senate parliamentarian will have to rule on what passes and what doesn’t – this would be a good time to gauge his mood on the whole reconciliation concept. And publicly flirting with the reconciliation mechanism sends a message to the Blue Dogs: “If you screw Obama over in the first floor vote, not only are you going to bring the wrath of the whole party down no your heads, but you’re going to lose anyway because we have this second mechanism we can use to go around you.”

Baucus, the most conservative of the big three Senators currently hashing out the language for the Senate health reform bill, seems to be warming to the opt-out option. He reeled off the list of options, the “most pure” plan involving a public option linked to Medicare, and the many “less pure” plans such as Schumer’s public option plan, the opt-out, the opt-in, the coops, the triggers. He implied that the “most pure” version – the one linked to Medicare – was the nonstarter, echoing the sentiment of fellow Blue Dog Kent Conrad; in fact, other conservative Democrats are beginning to subtly draw that line – it’s the Medicare-linked public option they won’t go for, which is a very good sign. Baucus expressed particular interest in the opt-out. So it sounds as though the conservative Democrats are warming up to the notion that giving Obama the opt-out package would be a good compromise between the more robust public option, and openly defying the President. They seem to be realizing that defying a popular president in order to block a popular legislative effort is suicidal. Senate liberals are leaning on the Blue Dogs, to the tune of “you don’t want to be the one person who kills reform and cripples the party and the president, do you?”

Interestingly, it still sounds as though the Democratic leaders are not making much of an effort to persuade Blue Dogs to have their cake and eat it too – vote yes on cloture and then no on the bill itself. It sounds as though they’re shooting for 60 on the actual bill. Not sure why – the split-the-difference notion allows you to get a better bill and still get to 60. But as long as their talking opt-out rather than clinging to Baucus’ idiotic coops or Snowe’s fatally flawed trigger, we’re okay.

The various Blue Dogs are dragging this out as long as possible – as soon as they commit to a position, they no longer get all the attention, which is pretty childish; and as long as the three Senators are behind closed doors hashing out the bill, the Blue Dogs aren’t getting the ego massaging and schmoozing they need so desperately. Lincoln may have been speaking kindly of the trigger option in an effort to block the more liberal opt-out, but in the meantime her Arkansans back home, who have said in the polls that they want the public option, slapped her silly on the issue in a recent forum. Lincoln isn’t the only Blue Dog facing liberal pressure back home: Carper, Nelson and Conrad are also facing potential revolts from home-state Democrats, Mainers are putting pressure on Snowe and Collins. Specter, interestingly, is touting the public option, perhaps feeling the pressure from Sestak back in Pennsylvania. Conrad may be leaving himself room to back Obama after all, by specifying, as I noted, that it’s the Medicare-based public option he can’t vote for although he stills prefers coops and triggers; Obama worked him over in the Oval today.

Pretty soon Democratic Senators are going to be asking Lieberman – “Why are you insisting on an investigation of Obama’s “czars”, when you didn’t investigate Bush’s czars when you had the same oversight job? If you’re going to give preferential treatment to the Republicans, why don’t you just take off the mask and join the GOP?” This actually gives me hope here – Lieberman can’t be stupid enough to defy Obama on czars and then defy him again on health care, because he knows he’d be thrown out of the Democratic caucus. Hopefully he’s tacking to the right on czars so he can then tack to the left on cloture for health reform.

I think the Republicans know how much trouble they’re in. It is now emerging that Senate Republicans don’t expect any Blue Dog Democrats to block passage of the health reform bill, even if there is a public option included. The Republicans might even lose Snowe and Collins, who could conceivably support cloture. So now the only remaining strategies for the GOP are delay (they demand several weeks of debate, which the Democrats rejected) and more lies about tax increases, seniors getting denied care, some new variation on the death-panel bullcrap, etc etc.

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