It's probably easier just to not parse every statement coming out of the Congress on health care. This is the sausage-making period, and it's rarely pretty. But everyone is reporting that, a day after Harry Reid asked his caucus to support the majority's goals by not supporting a filibuster and told Max Baucus to drop bipartisan efforts on the health care bill that would lose Democratic votes, he reached out to a limited group of Republicans and asked them for help on the bill. And Max Baucus and Charles Grassley, according to the LA Times, continue to move forward on their centrist bill in the Senate Finance Committee.
Well, sure. This is the talking phase, and I wouldn't expect a stonewall of silence at this point. Chasing exactly what will remain in the bill or not is like chasing a rainbow.
However, a couple elements to the chatter seem significant. Politico adds up the numbers:
But taxing health benefits to pay for an overhaul? That's still dead, Democratic leaders made clear again Wednesday.
And another thing that's increasingly in doubt: any hopes of getting a health reform bill voted out of the Senate by August, a byproduct of the leadership's decision to lay down the law on finding a new way to pay for it.
Reid's move blows a gigantic hole in efforts to find $1 trillion to pay for health reform - and set off a scramble Wednesday to come up with a replacement for the suddenly missing $320 billion over 10 years.
And if Democrats thought taxing health benefits was unpopular, the second-least-popular idea might be a tough sell, too - a straight-up income tax hike on people making more than $250,000 a year. That idea gained new currency in the Senate and the House Wednesday in part because it would not divide the Democratic base as much as taxing health benefits, which could hit the middle class, and unions strongly oppose it.
Sin taxes on sugary sodas and drinks were back on the table - despite being dismissed weeks ago as too small to be worth the fight it would take to pass them. A few Democrats were talking again about resurrecting President Barack Obama's plan to lower income tax deductions for wealthy Americans, an idea that died barely weeks after Obama first floated it earlier this year.
It does look like changing the employer deduction is right out (which is kind of a shame - I support capping that deduction). But if we're only talking about $320 billion to go, then they should just adopt the Obama Administration's plan to return the rate of deductions for charitable donations to where it was in the Reagan Administration. It's the most defensible (I envision rhetoric like "you mean you give charity for the tax break, not out of the goodness of your heart?") and has already been vetted by the White House.
Now, to get a bill that spends more than $1 trillion a year, you might need something else. But add in the charitable deduction piece and you're up to $1 trillion, which is definitely a better place than I thought.
There's also the wrangling over whether Democrats will join Republican filibusters. Dick Durbin implored the caucus on this:
If they will stick with us on the procedural votes, we at least know that we can move forward.... They may vote against final passage on a bill, they may vote with Republicans on an amendment. That's entirely their right to do. But this idea of allowing the filibuster to stop the whole Senate.... We ought to control our own agenda.
Just making this public is probably part of the strategy. Sadly, plenty of Democrats have swallowed the notion that procedural votes equal the votes themselves:
"Most Senators vote their conscience and they do what they think is right. They didn't come here to be told what to do by somebody else," moderate Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.) said [...]
"You know how this place operates. Very often, it's the procedural votes that determine the substantive outcome. Sometimes not, but it's not uncommon that that is the case. So those votes on procedural issues will be cast as if they are the ultimate substantive vote," he said.
That's really only true if someone like Evan Bayh believes it. He can separate procedure and the final vote to his constituents if he wanted to. So we can only conclude that he'd rather not.
Good to know.