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Snowe Falls, but More Obstacles Remain for Health Care Legislation

The health care reform debate is rapidly moving to some critical moments and critical choices in both the House and the Senate; the dynamics now raise fascinating questions about the process, the parties, the institutions and the norms inside Congress.

Let’s start with Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who has been the subject of almost endless fascination, admiration and distaste, the latter coming from conservative activists and liberal activists alike. One can imagine Snowe being the only politician ever to receive simultaneous negative ads from the Club for Growth and MoveOn.org.

The notion that one Senator can have so much power has rankled a lot of people and puzzled others, and I have gotten a lot of calls about it. My response has been the following: Even before the 60-vote hurdle became routine in the Senate, the late, great Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) would remark about how achieving and implementing major social policy change — when Washington asks Americans to “trust us” that short-term pain will result in long-term gain — requires broad bipartisan leadership consensus or support.

That should mean not just 60 votes in the Senate, but 70 or more — and in the old days, that would be achievable. Medicare passed in 1965 by 68-21 — and by 313-115 in the House. What are the odds today of getting 68 votes in the Senate (much less 300-plus in the House) for a health care reform bill? As George W. Bush was fond of saying, “slim to none — and slim just left the building.”

Given the hyperpartisanship of our era and the now-reflexive use of the filibuster to block legislation, getting barely to 60 becomes the goal, and that makes the marginal votes as one approaches 58, 59 and 60 especially crucial, and gives great clout to the individual Senators in that position. The clout is magnified when the potential 60th is the only member of the minority party now willing to offer support, providing at least nominal bipartisanship. (If there were any hope of even modest bipartisanship, where a half-dozen or more minority Senators would be willing to sign on to a bill, we would have a different dynamic.)

I have known Olympia Snowe since the early 1980s. I spent time with her (and her Maine colleague and husband Jock McKernan) at Wednesday Group retreats. I worked closely with her on campaign finance reform. I can’t think of another Senator I would rather have in that catbird seat. She is smart, has deep integrity, and is clearly using her leverage to try to make a better bill that will help more Americans and bring some measure of fiscal responsibility as well.

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