Monday 5 October 2009

Only a few votes away from victory!

Chuck Schumer says that even the Senate Blue Dogs are open to the public option, and that the public option has 54 to 56 votes in the Senate (other counts are a bit lower). That also means that there can be, at most, only a handful of Democratic Senators who hate the public option so much they would be willing to consider wrecking their own party in order to kill it. And that means Obama only needs to schmooze a few people, to nail down the cloture issue.

First, the biggest threats to block cloture probably are:

Ben Nelson has supported and opposed the public option at various times and refuses to commit to cloture.
Landrieu refuses to commit to cloture.
Lieberman: I say, threaten to take away his chairmanship; he’s already gotten one mulligan from Obama and doesn’t deserve another.
Lincoln’s latest stance: she doesn’t want a government-run and government-supported public option; she wants something that is competitive and offers choice. She’s leaving herself some wiggle room: she’s the Senator from Blue Cross, so she knows all about how bribes work. So throw her a bone.
Conrad was pushing for co-ops because he claimed the public option couldn’t pass; he wants a deficit-neutral bill.

Nelson, Landrieu and Lieberman tried to set up a “Gang Of Seven” which sought to pass a bill without a public option. These folks would prefer coops, but who wants to be the one who kills the floor bill, wipes away a year of effort by Obama, and cripples the Democratic party? Who wants to be a pariah for the rest of their career, with Obama gunning for them? That applies even more to the next group….

Second, the people who should be “gettable” for cloture are:

Baucus, bruised ego aside, said he wants the public option.
Bayh – some people worry that he is a filibuster threat, but he said he’s agnostic on the public option (although he wants a deficit-neutral bill). Bayh still may have national ambitions, which a filibuster vote would kill instantly.
Begich, very liberal from a very conservative state; what are his long-term career goals? Is this vote the make-or-break on reelection?
Wyden was in on the Gang of Seven and he fielded his own coop proposal, but he voted for the public option once, and should at least support cloture. He is still angry that Baucus and Conrad deliberately sabotaged his (quite cost-effective) amendment on insurance exchanges: Obama can win him over by soothing his ruffled feathers and tossing him some amendments he likes.
Pryor could support the public option if it increases competition instead of eliminating it. Easily done.

Third, these guys are probably safe votes for cloture, but call them and check anyway:

Byrd spoke out for honoring Kennedy by passing a bill.
Carper, Warner and Bill Nelson have voted for the public option at least once.
Tester says he’s okay either way (public option or not)

So far most Blue Dogs seem to be ready to fall in line behind Obama provided that the final bill is okay with their constituents and is deficit-neutral, and perhaps has some discreet bribes, or something they can claim victory on. The Democratic leadership is already working to package the bill in those terms, so that it is attractive to the Blue Dogs and their voters, and contains some bennies for them.

Also, these are worth a try, at least:

Snowe and Collins? Some of the old goats on the GOP side who aren’t facing reelection? Who knows? The stupidity of the GOP stance on this is so obvious that three former GOP Senate leaders – Frist, Baker, Dole – support reform. Ya never know.

Obama and his staff are working the phones constantly, asking the Senators: what sort of public option could you commit to cloture on, even if you don’t vote for the bill itself? For any loyal Democrat, the answer should be “whatever my party leadership says”, just like parties have been doing for 200 years. That’s the price you pay for belonging to a party, getting to chair committees etc.

So the pressure is on. When Obama held his Monday photo-op with pro-reform doctors, the doctors came from… Arkansas, Florida, Maine and Nebraska. Party leaders are putting pressure on the Blue Dogs to support cloture. And the Nebraska Democratic Party is publicly putting pressure on Ben Nelson, demanding a robust public option, which translated into English, means “here’s a whole list of state Democrats who will set up a primary challenge if you screw us over on this.”

And the preparations begin. After all those phone calls to Capitol Hill, Obama will soon know what he can get a cloture vote on; and that is what will be in the Senate bill that Reid takes to the floor. It is critical that the public option be in the bill at the beginning, when it first goes to the floor, so we don’t need to climb the cloture mountain one extra time. Happily, Reid has come out publicly and said he will side with Harkin against Baucus and put “some form” of the public option in the bill. Of course Baucus has other things on his mind: his committee is dragging its feet yet again on its bill, and now he may have trouble even getting 12 votes to report out his bill. So we’ll see the Baucus bill passed in committee sometime in, what, February at this rate?

Until Obama and Reid finish working over the Senators and using the results of those discussions to draft the final Senate bill, the sky will still be filled with trial balloons, on both sides of Capitol Hill. Obama would like the House to pass a pretty liberal bill, for maximum leverage, but Pelosi can ignore the demands of the progressives that the bill must link the public option to Medicare rates, the most liberal version short of single-payer: some liberals say they’ll vote against a formula that isn’t linked to Medicare, but it’s just a bluff, and everyone knows it would never pass the Senate anyway. Pelosi will probably pass something looking vaguely like Schumer’s amendment.

Schumer plan is actually a bit conservative: it doesn’t connect rates to Medicare and it must survive on premiums – Obama could conceivably sell it to the Blue Dogs as the next thing to a coop. Schumer actually tried to make nice with Conrad, and suggested that Conrad’s plan would work if it was national, but Conrad told him to pound sand. Maybe he’ll sing a different tune with Obama holding a fireplace poker over his head.

In addition to national plans like Schumer’s, there are a number of plans leaving things up to the states. Cantwell is proposing federal money for optional state public-option plans; Carper wants federal money so states can choose between a coop, the public option or a state employee plan; Conrad also proposes federal money for state coops. The danger is that, as history has shown us, it is very easy for the insurers to go into these dinky state capitals and buy entire legislatures out of their petty cash, or game the system in some other way.

And of course Snowe still has her trigger option. Right now she’s realizing that she overplayed her hand just a tad, and that Obama is moving on, although he will still keep up the schmooze with her just in case – it costs nothing.

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