While it’s not a totally done deal yet, it’s beginning to look like Harry Reid will have unanimity in the Democratic Caucus for introducing the health care bill. If true, this would mean that one of the biggest hurdles will have been cleared. Ultimately, Reid is going to have reach 60 votes three separate times. Introducing the bill is the first. Then he will need to get 60 to end debate (this is where a filibuster is formally killed). And, once the bill passes and goes to the Conference Committee, he will need 60 votes to end debate on the Conference Report and move to a vote on final passage.
It’s important to get that first sixty-vote hurdle out of the way. Psychologically, it’s good to have the number of votes you will ultimately need lined up on a procedural vote at the beginning. It will be difficult for any senators to vote ‘no’ on a later cloture vote once they have voted ‘aye’ on a prior one. Of course, that’s exactly what Joe Lieberman has been threatening to do by saying he will vote to begin debate, but not to end it if a public option remains in the bill. Ben Nelson is making a similar threat related to the abortion language and the anti-trust exemption for health insurance corporations.
If this bill gets started in the Senate with an opt-out public option, it is either going to finish with one or it is not going to pass. Someone will introduce an amendment to strip out the public option, but it will probably need 60 votes to pass (by unanimous consent, most amendments will need 60 votes to pass). That means that 20 Democrats would have to vote to strip out the public option. It’s possible that Lieberman and Snowe will argue that the amendment must pass or they won’t vote for cloture to end debate on the bill. The Dems would then be forced to make a decision. Do they cave in to the threat and vote to strip out the public option? Do they call bullshit, and challenge Lieberman and Snowe to make good on their threats? Or, does Reid just pull the bill off the floor and replace it will a bill that lacks a public option?
Another possibility is that Reid would just give up on passing the bill through regular order and move directly to the budget reconciliation process. If Reid is still facing stiff opposition after the first 60-vote hurdle is passed, he may begin threatening to use reconciliation as a way to keep the ‘centrists’ in line. The centrists have already won a lot in negotiations, and that can all be taken away if Reid is forced to pull the bill and do reconciliation. My sense is that the liberals in the Senate have given about as much as they’re willing to give. And I know for certain that that is true among progressives in the House. The bill appears to be approximately where it should be for final passage. It’s a better Senate bill than I anticipated and a much worse House bill than I anticipated. But the House-Senate compromise looks to be about what I expected.
I don’t like doing it this way because it gives Lieberman and Nelson and Lincoln and Landrieu and Bayh vetoes on the front-end when they have maximum leverage. But it might just work. And, if it doesn’t, we might just get a more progressive (if less comprehensive) bill in reconciliation. I don’t think failure is an option this time.