Monday, December 21, 2009

In A Fifty Vote Senate

Back now to the "kill-bill" vs. "pass bill" debate among liberals.  There's quite a bit of chatter today, mostly in reaction to substantive arguments from Jane Hamsher and others.  I find the substantive arguments unpersuasive -- really, I think that #6 here from Ezra Klein is particularly devastating -- but I also agree with Jonathan Cohn, who notes that "Hamsher and others on the left think that, if the Senate bill goes down, we'll end up with something better, perhaps through the reconciliation process." 

The obvious (and correct) rejoinder has been to look at the risks associated with reconciliation.  About that, the "pass the bill" crowd is correct.  But there are two other points that are more fundamental, plus a third thing that public option supporters should know:

1. Supermajority rules did not kill the robust public option.

The most obvious point about reconciliation is that only things with majority support can win that way.  In this, Nate Silver is right to point to the most important piece of evidence we have: the vote on a robust public option in the Senate Finance Committee.   In that vote, not only did Lincoln oppose the public option, but so did Bill Nelson, Carper, and Conrad (and Max Baucus, but I think it's pretty clear that Baucus will vote for whatever gets a bill to pass, so I won't count this as a preference-revealing vote for him).  Those four would certainly be joined by Lieberman, Ben Nelson, Webb, Pryor and Landrieu in a straight vote on a strong public option, and would almost certainly be joined by several of McCaskill, Hagan, Klobuchar, Tester, Baucus, Begich, Bennet, and Casey, all of whom have overall voting records more conservative than Carper.  And, again, that's a robust public option limited to those on the exchanges; it's not the actual stated preference of the FDL group, which is "a robust public option open to all Americans." 

Supermajority rules did not kill the strong public option.  It did not have 50 votes.  I don't think it was close.

(I do think, by the way, that Pelosi might have scared up enough votes to pass it in the House, had the Senate been likely to go along).

2.  Supermajority rules may or may not have killed off the weak public option.

I agree with much of what Nate Silver says about reconciliation in this post, with one exception: I don't think he's right that the use of reconciliation per se would be a vote-shifting issue.  There's really no evidence that voters care, or even pay enough attention to know, about such things.  I think it's likely that a full-court press could have secured 50 votes in the abstract for a weak public option.  However, the political downside of passing a bill without any Republicans and without moderate Democrats might well have proved too much and sunk the whole thing.  Moreover, once again that's true even without supermajority rules.  In a 50 vote Senate, after a strong public option was defeated, there would have been strong sentiment to find a deal that could get at least 55, and preferably 58 (or more) Senators.  The group of Senators who would be equally fine with a bill either with or without a weak public option (and I'd set that number as at least five, and as many as fifteen) would have a strong incentive to drop or further weaken the public option in order to secure the votes of Bayh, Lincoln, Webb, and Landrieu.  In a 50 vote Senate, maybe the liberals can keep 50 and a weak public option, or weak public option with an opt-out, or some other combo, or maybe not; it's impossible to know from the available information.  That's all without any consideration of any of the (very real) consequences of using reconciliation.

But, again, there's one important thing for public option supporters to consider as they chose what to do now:

3.  The votes aren't there for a public option this time.  The odds are good that the votes will be there, however, in a future Democratic Senate...if the current bill passes.  The best course for public option supporters is to work for the best deal in conference (focus on small things, not the big ones, which are already the subject of done deals); then push Democratic candidates in 2010 to take a strong stand for a public option, especially in contested primaries where liberals have lots of leverage; then, work to elect as many Democrats as you can (regardless of their stated position on the public option).  And then, repeat as necessary. 

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