As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Why Give Up So Much To Arlen Specter?

Democratic vote against the Obama budget Arlen Specter continues to feel the heat from various elements of his new constituency. Lifelong Democrat (as opposed to Democrat for 2 days) Joe Sestak keeps firing warning shots.

"I'll wait and see. Is he gonna be for what we believe in. if it's not good for Pennsylvania, well then we'll make that decision."

And Andy Stern has a much tougher messsage on Specter today than he did on the day of the announcement, essentially saying that they will judge the new Democrat on his policies and not his party.

"We applaud the Senator on showing the political courage we know it took to change parties--and to move to a place we believe is more closely aligned with his personal convictions. But SEIU has always been an organization that supports candidates and elected officials based on their commitment to working families, not their party labels.

The issues that face working people in Pennsylvania have not changed, and the support we need from our representatives in Congress hasn't changed, either.

We know there have been contradictory and confusing reports about what Senator Specter's decision means for the priorities of working families in our state. In a word: our fight for Employee Free Choice and quality, affordable healthcare continues, as strong as ever."

This is of course as it should be. Arlen Specter was never winning re-election as a Republican, and thus had no leverage to negotiate terms with the Democrats. And yet he was given seniority and an implicit protection from primaries, sticking Pennsylvania Democrats with Specter instead of someone who may be a preferred choice. It puzzles to see how much Democrats yielded, unless this is all about passing a health care bill.

When it comes to health care reform, Sen. Arlen Specter may be one of the few (former) Republicans open to negotiation. A co-sponsor of the Wyden-Bennett health bill, Specter has been a strong proponent of reforming the health care system. He supports allowing the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to negotiate Medicare’s prescription drug prices, drug importation and SCHIP expansion.

Specter demanded that the stimulus bill include an additional $10.4 billion for the National Institutes of Health, and has recently proposed establishing a new agency to “award grants to help develop new treatments through biotechnology.”

So what does all of this mean for health care reform and the recent debate over reconciliation? Democrats now have 60 votes (assuming that Al Franken is seated) to pass health care reform and some pundits may argue that reconciliation is no longer necessary. But this view overestimates the unity of the Democratic party. Blue-dog moderates like Sens. Evan Bayh (D-IN) and Ben Nelson (D-NE) are unlikely to support the price tag of comprehensive health care reform ($1.3 trillion over 10 years) or legislation that undermines the monopoly of private insurers. For this reason, reconciliation forces Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats to compromise with the liberal majority, not the other way around.

Specter supported most of those health care priorities as a Republican, and while he has no pressure to uphold a filibuster to win a primary this time around, I agree with Igor Volsky that moderates will still hold health care hostage, and Specter will likely fall in line with them. Reconciliation remains a tool to short-circuit that possibility. And with pressure coming from the left to shape health care reform as much as the center, I don't think Specter's party switch is actually all that impactful. He remains a conservative, and if Pennsylvania voters would rather have a mainstream Democrat, they ought to have that choice.

...I should add that Barack Obama seems to think that Arlen Specter is important to passing health care reform, and he probably knows more about that than I do.

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