Friday, October 23, 2009

Counting Senate Votes on Health Care, Again

Steve Benen's reporting and comments on the politics of health care reform have been very useful, but I do want to clarify something in his analysis today. Benen says:
Every time a center-right member of the Senate Democratic caucus says something discouraging about health care reform, there's always a key caveat: their votes on cloture matter more than their votes on the bill. Just so long as these "Conservadems" oppose a Republican filibuster that would block consideration of the bill, they can vote however they please on the legislation itself.
That's right, but only up to a point. I'm going to try to lay this out, but it really is a little complicated...I said I wanted to clarify it, but really all I can do is just lay how how tricky it all is.

Let's simplify by supposing that a Senator is either for or against a particular version of a public option. And let's also suppose that the Senator supports a bill without a public option, which appears to be the case for all sixty Democrats in the Senate.

The question becomes: how strongly does a Senator oppose the public option? There are actually a range of answers, or at least behaviors corresponding to those answers. I'll call them categories one through four:

1. Mildly opposed. Such a Senator would vote for a bill including the public option, vote for cloture on a bill including public option, and demand no separate vote on public option -- although she would vote against the public option should an amendment offering such a choice comes to a vote.

2. More strongly opposed. That Senator would still vote yes/yes on the bill with a public option and cloture for that bill, but might demand a chance to vote against the public option in a separate amendment.

3. Even more strongly opposed. A Senator with this position would be a yes/no vote (what Benen is talking about), voting yes on cloture and no on the bill. Furthermore, he might insist on the separate vote in exchange for the yes vote on final passage cloture.

4. Totally opposed: no on cloture, no on the bill, if it contains a public option.

Got that? Now multiply each of those times the different types of public options: the "strong" public option (the Rockefeller amendment in the Finance Committee), the "weak" public option (Schumer amendment), either of these with an opt-out, either of these with an opt-in, either of these with a trigger, strong or weak with an opt-out and a get the picture.

Now, the very good news for the bill is that there don't seem to be any category four Democratic Senators: no on cloture (and the bill), except for the strongest versions of the public option.

It is also pretty clear, from the Finance Committee votes and from reporting, that the weakest of the public option compromises would have at least 50 category two votes (yes/yes, but asking for a separate vote). That means that some version of the public option is viable.

The difficulty, then, is that as the negotiators move to stronger public options, the possibility of a large pool of category three Senators (yes/no) opens up. Benen has Landrieu and Pryor potentially in that category. The question, then, is how many others might be there, and the problem is that it might be quite a few. Looking here, Landrieu is currently the 9th and Pryor the 18th least liberal Democrat. Now, two of the top ten, Byrd and Feingold, should be safe yes/yes votes, but there are a lot of potential category threes here, including the Nelsons, Lincoln, Conrad, Tester, Hagan, Bayh, McCaskill, Begich, Bennet, and of course Lieberman. They can't, that is, all vote yes/no, because the bill won't actually get to 50.

OK so far? Bottom line to this point: it's not quite right that securing 60 for cloture will be enough, because there could be too many yes/no votes, which gives you cloture but not passage. That's the clarification I spoke about up top...getting 60 for cloture isn't necessarily enough. The bill needs 60/50: at least sixty for cloture, with at least 50 for passage (with Biden breaking the tie).

I hate to complicate things further, but there's yet another potential problem. Feel free to skip this next paragraph and just substitute "it's even more complicated" for the substance of it.

If you're still with me, the added complexity is the category two group (yes/yes on passage, but only if they get to cast an amendment vote against the public option before voting for a bill including the public option). On the face of it, that's a perfectly logically defensible position. Except -- what if that group is larger than ten? As everyone has said (here's a good explanation by Ezra Klein), there's a huge advantage for any provision that gets included in the version of the bill that goes to the floor, because it would take sixty votes to remove it. After all, bill supporters could filibuster the amendment to strip a public plan from the bill. Unless...the price for the yes/yes vote is a vote on the amendment, and not just a vote on cloture on the amendment, to strip the public plan out. Call it the strong version of category two, or 2A, or whatever. And here's the real kicker. Some of those in category two on the Senate bill may be category three (yes/no) on the conference report, with (presumably) a stronger public option. They will want to go back to their states and say that they're "real" vote was against the bill (even though they voted for cloture), but if that's their position, then it might be a tough sell (logically, at least) to say they "really" voted against the public option when all they really did was vote for cloture on an amendment to kill the public option, before eventually voting for a (Senate version) bill with a public option.

I hope I got that right. I'm not going back to check.

OK, back to the main point. To begin with, the odds of getting a bill remain very good. As it's seemed for weeks, there appear to be enough votes in the Senate for at least a weak public option. The trick for Harry Reid is to push for the strongest public option he can get (in order to keep liberals happy) without jeopardizing 60/50.

Oh, and note that preferences might not be linear; Senators might not actually agree about which of the various compromises available are weaker or stronger. And some Senators may not care very much at all about the specifics, but take the opportunity to bargain with Reid (and/or the White House) for some unrelated goodies.

All of which only means that there's a lot of hard work needed to make these things come together.

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