Sunday, 24 January 2010

Contractual Obligations

I mentioned yesterday that I'd have a bit more up about healthcare today. Unfortunately, yesterday's 14 hour drinking binge (interrupted only to watch Blacklung get married and a bit of dancing like a loon) has blurred my recollection of what exactly I meant to post. Certainly, I'm even less optimistic today than I was yesterday. That's possibly illogical; I'm not sure what I was expecting to happen by early Sunday afternoon Washington time, but there you go.

So I don't really feel like the "Hey, it just might be OK after all!" post I had half-conceived. But I'm going to put together an approximation of it in any case. Like the Mayor of Sunnydale before me; I keep my promises.

Essentially, the slim ray of hope amongst all of this involves two previous announcements, and an upcoming one. First, we have this:

The core problem is that the House Democrats no longer trust the Senate Democrats. And let’s be honest: There is no reason in the world for House Democrats to trust the Senate Democrats at this point, or even to feel very kindly disposed toward them.

That’s why there is resistance in the House to the most straightforward solution, which is for the House to pass the Senate health-care bill and send it to the president, and then to use the reconciliation process (which requires only 51 votes in the Senate) to pass the changes in the bill that House and Senate negotiators have agreed to—or, at least, as many of those changes as is procedurally possible. They can’t get all the changes into law that way, but they could get a lot of them.

The catch is that the House Democrats don’t believe the Senate Democrats will necessarily keep their word and pass the reconciliation bill containing the amendments. And it’s not only the question of trust: anyone who has watched the Senate for the last year can be forgiven for wondering if it is even functional enough (given Republican obstruction and a lack of cohesion in the Democratic caucus) to keep a promise sincerely made.

I read a summary of this position, but I've forgotten where, and whether it was a response to Dionne himself or to someone on the Hill making the same argument. Essentially, it ran along the lines that whilst it's true that at first glance the Senate is pretty much a pathetic excuse for a political institution, it's obviously not accurate that the Senate can't be trusted to pass something that requires a simple majority vote. They got 53 on healthcare without any trouble whatsoever. And whilst a lower number of necessary votes might lead to an increased amount of bullshit from senators who might otherwise fallen in line, it seems ludicrous to suggest the amount of time Lieberman, Nelson et al spent shitting over their own electorate constitutes a genuine concern for gathering 50 votes together.

There are thus three possibilities for why the above opinion was aired. Number one: the House is now so pissed with the Senate repeatedly ignoring anything they say, do or want that they've decided to finally take a stand. "If we can't shape the bill, we won't pass it". Obviously, I sympathise with their position, but since a) it's abundantly clear that trying this will simply lead to massive problems for House Democrats come election time, and b) the Senate has already made it clear that they've passed a bill and the House can pass it or go fuck themselves, there seems no point to the House choosing to die on this particular hill; it's like cutting off your nose to spite someone else's face.

The second possibility is that the House knows it's about to drop the ball, and is hoping to push some of the blame onto the Senate. This is probably the most plausible explanation. Certainly, whilst hoping whining about the Senate or trying to bring Republicans back on board in negotiations in the hope of spreading the pain is a massively boneheaded idea, it's an order of magnitude less flat-out imbecilic than believing letting the bill die is the best option left on the table, so I have no intention of ruling it out.

There is, though, a third explanation, and it ties into Speaker Pelosi's recent announcement that the House lacks the votes to pass the bill "at this time." Lindsay Beyerstein argues pretty persuasively that rather than sounding the death knell of reform, Pelosi's comment is basic negotiating strategy. If she implied the House could sort the Senate's mess out all by themselves, the Senate would have no reason to agree to anything. Far better to suggest the House can pass the bill, so long as the Senate agrees to push through certain House-requested changes via reconciliation later in the year.

As I say, I find the second explanation more convincing than the third, though of course the latter one is by far the most comforting. The fact that the Democrats are dragging their heels on this, however, means that hope remains. If the bill was clearly defeated, the only thing left to do would be to kill it as quickly as possible.

This is where my final point comes in. The general feeling amongst progressive political commentators right now is that every day the Democrats dither makes it less likely the bill will pass, and the more damage they will take for fiddling whilst Rome dies for lack of medical treatment. I would be very sympathetic for that position except for one thing: next week is the State of the Union. If I were Obama, I would be tempted to sit on the announcement that Democrats in the House and Senate had come up with a way to work together in concert to overcome Republican obstructionism so that he could unleash it in his speech. Certainly, one of the major reasons Democrats are balking at passing the bill is the tepid-at-best public support for it. If there was ever a chance to build some momentum, to remind people why this bill is good for them (at least in comparison to the status quo) and to signal the final charge on getting it passed, then the SotU would be time.

Again, I am not particularly hopeful that this is what is going to happen. Much as I spend a lot of my time defending Obama against what I think is unfair criticism, his treatment of the healthcare issue over the last few weeks/months has seemed genuinely pathetic. Whilst I think the above could work, and potentially work very well, and there is no direct evidence to suggest that it won't happen, Obama has spent too much time this week saying he refuses to let healthcare die but won't put any effort into producing a credible method to save it for me to hold out too much hope. It's also possible that I'm wrong and pretty much everyone else is right, and another three days of inaction will genuinely prove fatal.

Nevertheless, the possibility exists. And this is, by my count, at least the fifth time we've all been told healthcare was already dead (once before in the House and three times in the Senate). As Steve Benen pointed out yesterday, the alternative is to ignore the advice of their allies, and to follow that of their enemies. And that, at least, is something you should be able to count on politicians being too smart to do.

(Edited for clarity)

Update: Seems like Beyerstein's position is beginning to spread.


Senior Spielbergo said...

Given that the only options seem to be:

a) give up
b) pass the Senate Bill

is there any time scale or procedural issues in respect of passing it in the house? i.e is there a time limit or anything to be concerned about in respect of getting it done?

SpaceSquid said...

Not to my knowledge. It's bad optics to keep struggling, and there's not much chance of getting anything else done until one of those two options are chosen, but I know of no actual time limit that exists (though procedural limits may stipulate how many other things the House might be allowed to do whilst a bill remains undealt with).