Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Counting Senate Votes on Health Care

I didn't think we'd have news today, but I agree with Chris Bowers and Steve Benin that we did get some news. (As usual, this is all process and politics; if you want to understand the substantive case for and against the various possibilities, I'll still recommend Jon Cohn and Ezra Klein -- here's today's best from Jon and here's today's best from Ezra). I take a while to get to it, but the bottom line below is that I think the most likely outcome now is final passage of a bill that goes through regular floor procedures (i.e. gets cloture), that does not contain a strong public option but may contain a weak public option or, more likely, some sort of trigger or other compromise, but that is otherwise somewhat closer to what liberals want than the Senate Finance bill.

To recap:

The Rockefeller "strong public option" failed, with (Bill) Nelson, Carper, Conrad, Lincoln, Baucus, Snowe, and the rest of the Republicans against.

The Schumer "weak public option" failed, with Nelson and Carper flipping and supporting it.

On both votes, Baucus said that he supported the amendments on substantive grounds, but was voting no because he thought they would sink the bill.

So, where does that leave us?

First, I think it kills the strong public option. Even if Baucus might flip and vote for the Rockefeller amendment in some particular set of circumstances, that's still four solid votes against, and since there are twelve Democrats currently somewhat to the right of Bill Nelson and Conrad (and another couple between them and Carper), I think it's highly unlikely that there are 50 Democrats willing to cast an up-and-down yes vote on the Rockefeller amendment. I'll list Ben Nelson, Bayh, Landrieu, Webb, Dorgan, Hagan, Tester, Pryor, McCaskill, and Lieberman all as unlikely, and the liberals would need at least three of those (and Baucus, and a couple of other iffy votes) -- although I should note that this scoreboard has Webb and Dorgan as likely yes votes.

Second, it means that there probably are 50 votes for a weak public option, again in a simple yes/no vote. Probably. We know Bill Nelson and Carper are on board; odds are that's what Webb and Dorgan would support, given their comments.

But to know the fate of the weak public option, even if this count is correct, we need to know a few more things that we do not yet know.

The most important of these is the strength of the opposition among the opposition Democrats (and, to some extent, Snowe). If the bill winds up including the weak public option over their votes, would they then vote against final passage? (since it's possible that one or more of those who support the weak public might vote against the bill for other reasons). Would potential yes/no votes (vote for cloture but against the bill) switch to no/no votes if the public option was included? If the weak public option has to be added as a floor amendment, would opponents of the provision who are either yes/yes or yes/no on the bill be willing to vote yes/no on cloture on the amendment? (Yes, there can be multiple filibusters on single bills at different stages of floor consideration).

Next, we'd need to know a bit more about the marginal supporters of the weak public option. Are they all (or enough of them) still on board if reconciliation is used? Is weak public option their preference compared to a trigger of some sort (if, for example, the bill on the floor has a trigger, would the Schumer amendment lose a vote or two that it would have if the default bill had no trigger)? And the, finally, we would need to know whether the managers of the bill believe that reconciliation is worth the risks if there are 50 solid votes for the weak public option but not 60 for cloture with the public option -- but there are 60 votes for cloture with a trigger, or coops, or some other compromise. Is keeping the weak public option really worth that?

My guess, and it's only a guess, is that the numbers as they sit now kill off reconciliation as a procedure to get this done this year -- unless it turns out there aren't 60 for cloture for even the Senate Finance bill. However, I think it's looking very likely (80%? Maybe a bit higher?) that the Democrats can get cloture on the Senate Finance bill, and in fact they can probably get cloture on a somewhat stronger bill than whatever Senate Finance produces. Since I agree with those who say that such a bill, whatever its faults, would be a major, historic, achievement, I think supporters of health care reform should be pretty happy with how things are going -- given what was theoretically possible following the campaign that Obama ran last year (i.e. single-payer wasn't going to be on the table this year).

Still a lot of things we don't know, but it is, slowly, coming into better focus.

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