Thursday, March 11, 2010

Health Care "What If" Timeline

Ezra Klein has an interesting post today about health care and public opinion, in light of the improving polling numbers supporters of the bill are all citing.  He says:
I should also note that this evidence flies in the face of one of my core beliefs about health-care reform: That the Democrats would be in better shape, and the bill more popular, if Congress had stuck to the original timetable and passed the thing before the August recess. As you can see, the bill is about as popular now as it was then. Maybe even more so. This is, however, one of those times when I'm going to say that I'm right even though the evidence says I'm wrong: If Democrats could've gotten this legislation off the agenda and moved to bragging about their accomplishment and focusing on jobs, they'd be in a much stronger position today. But you should know that the numbers don't necessarily back up my belief on this.
On the one hand...even if you believe that the Gang of Six was a failure (and I don't; I think it was necessary to bring marginal Senate Democrats on board), I really think the evidence is that it was totally unrealistic to have passed the bill before August recess.  Apologies if I've gone over this before, but as long as the myth is still out there...

In the first place, the schedule was only for the bill to have passed both Houses of Congress by the recess.  This was, as I said at the time, a foolish idea; as bad as it was for Members to have to defend against "death panels" and socialism and whatever in August, it would have been considerably worse for them if they had already voted for the bills, but still had a final vote remaining.  At any rate, no one ever thought that a signed bill before September was a possibility.

Next, I think the idea that the bill could have even made it to conference before August recess was not realistic.  Certainly, Baucus was moving far more slowly than the other four committees, and one can at least argue that the other four committees could have moved even faster, and that Baucus could have matched that pace.  However, it's difficult for me to see any way that the Senate could have moved from the end of a Finance Committee markup to a final vote on the Senate floor in fewer than five weeks: one week to reconcile the Finance and HELP committee bills, two weeks for CBO to score the bills, and two weeks for Senate floor consideration.  Even had the Senate canceled the recess, I think a final vote in the Senate before September 1 is hard to imagine.

But...whether they could have been ready for the floor by early August, late August, or early September doesn't really matter, because the Democrats didn't really have 60 reliable votes until Paul Kirk was appointed to replace Ted Kennedy on September 24.  That was the first day, as it turned out, that the Democrats could have voted for cloture on the motion to proceed to the health care reform bill.  Instead, that vote came on November 21.   Had they begun on September 24, then it's likely that they could have wrapped up the final bill and had a signing ceremony before Christmas, so that's not nothing...but it isn't August, either.

To believe that the Democrats had any option of acting sooner requires one to believe that they could have retained Olympia Snowe's vote -- without the extended negotiations that went into building the Senate Finance bill.  I just don't think that's realistic. 

On his larger point -- that the sooner the Democrats passed the bill, the better for them -- I think Klein is correct, and I don't think the polling undermines that case at all, because we cannot know what the polling would have looked like had the bill moved a bit quicker.  But the idea that it could have been a lot quicker just doesn't hold up.  There was just no way that this bill could have reached the Senate floor before September 24.

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