As If They Had A Choice
The NYT reports that "Democrats Seem Set to Go It Alone on a Health Bill". In plain English, this means that "Democrats want a health bill." There was never going to be Republican support for anything calling itself health reform that Democrats and the President would support. You could whittle and whittle and whittle the bill down to nothing and it wouldn't matter. Somebody in Washington finally figured this out:
Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said the heated opposition was evidence that Republicans had made a political calculation to draw a line against any health care changes, the latest in a string of major administration proposals that Republicans have opposed.
“The Republican leadership,” Mr. Emanuel said, “has made a strategic decision that defeating President Obama’s health care proposal is more important for their political goals than solving the health insurance problems that Americans face every day.”
Ya think? Jon Kyl said yesterday that “There is no way that Republicans are going to support a trillion-dollar-plus bill.” Chuck Grassley admitted that he wouldn't vote for his own compromise and legitimized the "death panels" smear despite having voted for it in the past. You're just figuring out that Republicans view their jobs as blocking any legislation at all costs?
We're starting to hear this meme from the right that liberals are interested in negotiation and compromise with Iran and North Korea, but not with Republicans. Well, we've done the negotiations. They led to nothing for months. And the meme itself is false.
In foreign policy, liberals often believe that disputes with foreign actors can and should be settled through negotiation and compromise. That's because international relations isn't a zero-sum affair. Conflict is costly to both parties, good relations bring benefits to both parties, so disagreement is generally amenable to compromise. Ideological disagreement isn't zero-sum either. Neither conservatives nor progressives are wedded to principles that require defense of wasteful Medicare spending. But partisan politics is zero-sum. A 'win' for the Democrats is a 'loss' for Republicans. And the predominant thinking in the Republican Party at the moment is that inflicting legislative defeats on Democrats will lead to electoral defeats for Democrats. That makes the GOP hard to bargain with.
I would say "impossible." They're convinced it's 1994, and they're not needed by virtue of the numbers.
So where to go from here? Well, Democrats in the Senate could demand that their members join no Republican filibuster of any health care measure supported by a majority of their ranks. They can choose to not support the final bill if they wish. They should not keep it from a final vote. That's the simple solution. If that process winds us up with a public option in the House and a weak co-op option in the Senate, the conference committee could actually produce a positive result, provided Harry Reid puts the people on the conference with jurisdiction over the bill, like health subcommittee chair in the Finance Committee Jay Rockefeller (strong public option supporter) and retirement and aging subcommittee chair in the HELP Committee Barbara Mikulski (supporter).
That bill would easily pass the House. The Senate is trickier. But the conference report can't be amended. It can't be changed, or held up in committee. It can be filibustered, and it can be voted against. Those are the options. If three Democrats opposed the legislation and wanted to kill it, they would literally have to filibuster it (this is assuming that Democrats have 60 votes, which is not certain given Kennedy's health). That would be a very hard thing to do at that stage in the game. It would isolate the obstructionists, ensuring funded primary challenges and the enduring enmity of the Senate leadership and the White House. Kent Conrad can say that there aren't enough votes for a public option and imply that he's just protecting the final bill from defeat. But is he willing to be one of those "no" votes? Is he willing to filibuster? That's a different game indeed.
At this point, no Democratic Senator has committed to joining a Republican filibuster, an important distinction. The conservaDems should be asked if they plan to do so.
If that fails and President Nelson (who likes to shout at public option supporters in the media off camera) or some other newly elected President tries to torpedo the bill, there's the option of splitting reform into two bills, with the filibuster-able stuff in one bill, and stuff relevant to the budget packed into a bill that can be achieved with 50 votes in budget reconciliation. That makes those provisions likely to be subject to a sunset, but once a public option, expanded Medicaid, increasing subsidies and other budget-relevant things get enacted, I submit it will be hard for any Congress to allow them to expire. Failing that, there's the straight reconciliation path, which contra Chris Matthews is not "blowing up Senate rules" but part of them (someone who's never talked a word about Senate rules in his whole career should probably not start now), but which could get messy if elements not relevant to the budget got excised.
Or, Democrats could behave like Republicans and rule by fear and questioning opponents' patriotism. But that's, er, unlikely.
The point being, there are options, and lots more open up when you recognize the large majorities in both houses of Congress cancel the need for bipartisanship inside Washington.