Monday, February 1, 2010

Tea Leaves, Entrails, Signs and Portents (on Health Care, of course)

As Neil Sinhababu said over the weekend, we're at what he calls a "weird place" on health care right now.  Every few hours, something leaks out, or someone makes a statement, that either indicates things are right on course -- or that the whole process is dead.  Even worse (for peace of mind, that is), since the way things die on the Hill is through inaction, it's unlikely that health care reform will actually get a true, clear, death scene, if that's the way it's going to be. 

What explains the weirdness?  I think the problem is that the evidence fits two completely opposite stories.  Story one, the cheerful one for opponents of health care reform, is that the bill is dead, but that Democrats loath to disappoint supporters have decided to go through the motions of trying to find a Plan B, or C, or X, Y, Z.  Story two is the opposite.  Story two is that health care reform is moving along towards a successful conclusion (that is: pass and patch), but that everyone has decided that getting the negotiations out of the spotlight is a good idea.  That wouldn't, by the way, be unusual.  It may seem that health care reform dominated the political news from July through the middle of January, but that's not actually true; there were several (media) dead spots in which negotiations were taking place with little news leaking, or everyone sat around waiting for a CBO score, or the next action was scheduled but hadn't yet taken place.

Reporting isn't going to solve this one, because both stories have the same external appearance.  I continue to believe that Jonathan Chait has identified the correct logic here: Democrats are going to get attacked for it whether or not it passes, and the best defense is to point to actual benefits flowing from passed legislation.  The problem is that if the Democrats lose more one of the 219 who already voted for the bill, which is expected because of the changed abortion language, they'll need to pick up votes. The trick remains to convince House Democrats in marginal seats who voted against the bill the first time around that they are more vulnerable with a no vote and no bill than with a yes vote and a bill.  I think that's correct, but it's not obvious that marginal Democrats will agree.  As I said before, they probably believe that the best outcome is for the bill to pass without their vote.  Finding the solution to that one is how Nancy Pelosi earns her pay.

Of course, I also continue to believe that the House is better off passing the Senate bill first, and worrying about the patch later.  If Greg Sargent's excellent reporting is correct, that's not what Members of the House believe right now.  Here's the argument, again.  If all that's delaying things is the House insistence that the Senate patch goes first, the House is making a mistake.

On the other hand, and getting back to the main point here, the evidence is consistent with lots of stories, ranging from the bill being completely dead to a full plan in place.  We may just have to wait and see.

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