The political news website Talking Points Memo had a good piece last night analyzing the four Senate Democrats who are balking at supporting the public option, or even voting to bring a bill with a public option to a vote (ie, invoking cloture): Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), Ben Nelson (D-NE), and Mary Landrieu (D-LA).
“These are the four Democrats threatening to filibuster a public option bill down the line. They’re also in discussions with leadership and Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) regarding a compromise modeled on Snowe’s trigger. How they change the bill so significantly remains unclear (can Reid round up 60 votes to swap the provisions? Does he pull the bill off the floor and reintroduce it with a different public option?) For the time being, though, liberals are turning up the heat on these four. And to succeed, they’ll need to be well aware of what buttons to push.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is in a VERY tough spot here. the Dems can rip Lieberman, Jim DeMint, et al in the press or even on the Senate floor all they want. It won’t matter. If no Health Care Reform passes, the Dems are going to get their rears handed to them next year and likely in 2012 as well. The public isn’t going to care that the Republicans or Joe Lieberman wouldn’t vote for cloture. All that will matter to them is that the Democrats had the White House and large majorities in both chambers of Congress and once again proved incapable of governing and actually accomplishing things.
If Reid tries to go Tony Soprano (figuratively speaking, of course!) on those four, he risks at least three of them switching parties and no longer voting with the Dems even some of the time. Lincoln, Nelson and Landrieu would likely benefit politically from this (all three represent states that President Obama lost by at least 15 points last year). Who knows with Lieberman? He represents a very blue state and votes with the Democrats on social issues and even a lot of fiscal ones, but was primaried out in 2006 (he later won re-election anyway as an independent) and may still hold a grudge against the party because of that. He campaigned for John McCain last year, yet still got to keep his committee chairmanship and place in the caucus because Reid knew he’d likely need his vote to get stuff passed. Maybe Lieberman would change parties, serve out the rest of his current term and retire in 2012. Or maybe he’s just grandstanding to get attention for himself and will back down when Reid puts the gun in his face and starts to squeeze the trigger.
Reconcilliation, which doesn’t require invoking cloture (and hence only needs 50 votes plus Vice President Joe Biden), likely won’t work either. Only certain parts can be passed that way, and which ones are at the sole discretion of the Senate parliamentarian. If you think the Republicans are fighting this viciously now, just imagine how many bogus amendments they would propose to bog things down if this goes the reconcilliation route. And even if the Dems could keep 50 votes together through that entire process and get it passed, it would have to be re-approved in 2015. If the Republicans have control of the Senate by that point, Health Care Reform is dead before it’s even had a chance to take effect.
President Obama, Democrats and health care reform supporters are giddy today over the House passing its version of reform late last night. It is certainly a big step in the right direction – a bigger one than any administration and Congress has taken since Lyndon Johnson created Medicare in the 1960s.
But I would caution those supporters to not get too giddy. Because there are still several mountains left to climb before this is a done deal.
The next one is in the Senate, which has yet to pass its own version. On paper, this shouldn’t be a problem – the Dems and those caucusing with them control 60 seats and have the Vice President – more than enough to get a simple majority. In practice, however, it’s not nearly that simple.
Senate debate rules require 60 votes to “invoke cloture,” or stop debate and bring a bill to an up-or-down vote. So Majority Leader Harry Reid actually needs 60 votes to get this done. And there are a number of Democratic caucus members who represent conservative constituencies (or are just in the pockets of the insurance companies) who will be a tough sell to get on board with a public option – one of the most critical parts of any real healthcare reform, in my opinion. This group includes Ben Nelson (Nebraska), Blanche Lincoln (Arkansas), Mary Landrieu (Louisiana), Evan Bayh (Indiana) and Joe Lieberman (Connecticut). Lincoln and Bayh are both up for re-election next year. But Lieberman could be an even bigger fly in the ointment – he represents a rather liberal state (which went for Obama by 20 points last year) and votes with the Dems on most social issues. But he voted for the Iraq War and campaigned for Republican John McCain against Obama last year, even speaking at the Republican National Convention.
Reid could get around cloture rules by trying to pass the Senate’s version through budget reconcilliation, where he would need only 50 votes plus Vice President Biden. But this move would require the spending authorization to be renewed after 5 years. If the Republicans were to regain control of the Senate by that point, you know what would happen then.
The bill has already been delayed in the Senate and now may not even get passed this year, breaking President Obama’s second deadline. And if the debate goes into next year, moderate and conservative Democrats who are up for re-election in otherwise Republican districts or states are going to be even more reluctant to get on board.
Even if the Senate passes its version, it will have to be merged with the House version in conference committee. Both chambers will then have to pass the final combined version before President Obama can sign it. Same rules and obstacles will still apply.
So be happy with this step forward. But don’t pop the champagne corks just yet.
Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Tom Carper (D-DE) have been floating a version of health care reform with a public option that allows states to opt out. I like this idea. And it sounds like more conservative Democrats like Ben Nelson (D-NE) and Max Baucus (D-MT) are warming up to it too.
I think there needs to be a public option, if only a limited one, because health insurance companies can’t be trusted to keep premiums (for the uninsured or people having to buy on their own), co-payments and/or deductibles affordable. In many parts of the country, because of state laws or what not, there may be only one health insurance company to choose from, and costs reflect as much. Even people who have health insurance through their employer can be ruined financially from paying deductibles and co-payments required for treatment of cancer and other major diseases or injuries.
This plan would give reps and senators from more conservative constituencies (who distrust anything coming from Obama) political cover, because they can say they’re simply giving the power to their state rather than actually voting for it. If their constituents don’t want it, their state legislature can simply reject it. If their constituents want it and the legislature opts out, then the legislators will feel the heat.
Most importantly, this is better than the other compromises being floated, such as the “trigger” favored by Olympia Snowe (R-ME) or co-ops that would result in a weaker bill that is doomed to failure.
Certainly other things need to be done to reform healthcare. One tactic that I agree with, favored by former Congressman and 2010 Pennsylvania U.S. Senate candidate Pat Toomey, is to allow people to buy health insurance across state lines. As long as you then allow, say, NJ residents who buy PA or DE insurance to then go to doctors in NJ, this too will increase competition and lower costs.