Does The White House Have a Secret Strategy for Health Reform?
As Paul Krugman writes today, it's a bit tricky to say exactly what the White House's bottom line is on health care -- or even if it has one. "The only thing that's non-negotiable is success," Rahm Emmanuel likes to say. And a lot of things can be defined as success.
Krugman is concerned about the watered-down bill being considered by the Senate FInance Committee, and Obama's unwillingness to draw bright lines on what an acceptable piece of legislation looks like. There is a side of Obama, Krugman says, that "searches for common ground where none exists, and whose negotiations with himself lead to policies that are far too weak." This may well be right. The problem is that we don't know what Barack Obama is thinking.
Health reform, remember, is a long game. The Senate Finance Committee will not write the health reform bill. They will just write their version of it. Then it will merge with the HELP Committee's version. Then it will be amended on the floor of the Senate. Then it will be merged with the House's health reform bill in a process called "conference committee." Then that bill will return for a final vote.
So here's a question that few have asked, and that virtually no one knows the answer to: How important is conference committee to the way the White House is looking at health care? I've heard it's pretty important. Heard the same thing about Harry Reid, actually. If that's true, then this is what the Democratic leadership is thinking: The overriding imperative right now is to keep health reform alive. That's all that matters. Get it out of the Finance Committee. Get it off the Senate floor. If it's cut down to half a loaf, fine. You don't fix it now. You fix it in conference. Or you let Henry Waxman do it for you.
That, incidentally, is not an unprecedented strategy. It's what the Bush administration did with Medicare Part D. The expansion the Senate wrote was genuinely bipartisan: Ted Kennedy and Tom Daschle both voted for the legislation. But the version that came out of conference committee was significantly more conservative. Kennedy and Daschle abandoned the bill. Democrats began organizing against legislation they had previously supported. It passed anyway.
It passed because it's hard to filibuster bills emerging from conference. You can't change them, for one thing. No amendments are allowed. Nor is there time for debate. You vote for the bill, you vote against the bill, or you filibuster the bill. Those are your options. Democrats are likely to walk out of conference committee with 60 senators in their party. Ben Nelson will not be able to ask to change this bit he doesn't like, and Evan Bayh will not be allowed to offer an amendment weakening that piece. They stand with the White House or against it. And it is, in the estimation of most observers I've talked to, hard to imagine them literally filibustering the final vote on health reform. The White House would torture them until they lost reelection. And if no Democrats are willing to filibuster, then the White House could lose as many as 10 of them and still pass the bill.
At his press conference this week, Obama snapped back at a question from Chuck Todd. “I know everybody here is on a 24-hour news cycle," he said. "I’m not.” He's also not on a partial legislative cycle. He wants to sign a bill in October. That's the goal. The bill the Senate Finance Committee writes in June matters only insofar as it affects the bill Obama gets in October. And there are scenarios in which it's very important for that final bill and scenarios in which it's not very important at all. The problem is we don't know which playbook the White House is working from.
Photo credit: Associated Press Photo.
June 26, 2009; 12:41 PM ET
Categories: Health Reform , Health Reform For Beginners
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