Monday, August 3, 2009

Following the news: Counting Votes on Health Care

Here's one of the things to keep in mind when trying to count votes on health care reform.

First, Members of Congress don't like to cast controversial votes. It's perceived as bad for re-election.

Second, the Washington establishment, certainly including the press, tends to judge whether something is "controversial" based on whether it has bipartisan support.

Third, bipartisan support is no longer a useful criterion in an age of severe partisan polarization in Congress.

Conclusion: Members seeking to show that their vote is not controversial will try hard to find new markers to convince scorekeepers that all reasonable people support the bill.

So, two things are going on right now, both of which are quite important and reasonably healthy. On the one hand, since health care is in fact terribly complicated, with lots of interests having a stake in a whole bunch of provisions, we're going to see (and we are seeing) just a lot of tough negotiations. This is normal democratic procedure, although those who see politics in terms of Good Guys and Bad Guys tend to underappreciate it. On the other hand, we're going to see a lot of just-for-show negotiation, with Democrats who know that there are very few Republicans interested in a compromise bill needing to go a long ways toward convincing the press that the GOP is, in fact, unreasonable. Republicans, of course, have the opposite challenge: they're trying to show that their eventual unanimous (or close) opposition was the result of the particular bill on the floor, not part of a rejection strategy.

Then there's a third thing that's going on, which is not necessarily healthy but also shouldn't endanger an eventual bill, which is that the handful of marginal Senators are in a position to extract goodies in exchange for their support.

In other words, prolonged negotiations tell us nothing about whether the votes are there for a bill. Especially since those who are most interested in political cover are going to be the most interested in scoring points by keeping the negotiations going. While it makes sense for liberals who want a bill to keep pressure on, one should understand that the logic of the situation pushes a lot of Democrats who fully intend to support the final bill to do everything they can to position that bill as moderate even though (virtually) no Republicans will support it.

As far as whether the votes are there or not, we're just going to have to wait. However, I do think that it's very good news for the Democrats that they haven't lost any of their sixty Senators yet. Democratic Senators already intending to vote no have a lot less incentive to stay on the fence than those intending to eventually support whatever bill comes to the floor.

Next: the calculus of bullying in the Senate.

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