Road Map: Democrats Determined to Finish Bill by Easter

Posted March 8, 2010 at 6:38pm

The long, bruising slog on health care reform finally appears headed for a conclusion, with Congressional Democrats sensing fresh momentum and urgency to get it done.

[IMGCAP(1)]Whether it was the bipartisan White House summit, exhaustion, a sense of desperation, the threat of collapse of their majorities or President Barack Obama’s newfound toughness, House and Senate Democrats appear to be on the verge of finally passing something that has been at or near the top of their agenda for the better part of a century.

Democrats seem almost afraid to talk about it, given how close the vote is going to be in the House, how difficult it will be to whip Members and the still-unresolved issue of abortion. But if they do pass health care reform, Democrats will no longer be running a Congress that couldn’t get anything done; they will be in charge of a Congress that passed the most sweeping health legislation ever.

And while Members have blown through earlier deadlines for passing a health care overhaul, Obama’s latest push — to get a bill through the House next week — may be a bit more realistic.

All the cards and gambits seem to have been played: the appeal to moderates by holding a bipartisan summit, giving nod to Republican ideas in the latest blueprint, the appeal to liberals by adding billions for affordability and delaying the “Cadillac” tax on high-cost health plans, the hand-holding courtships at the White House with small groups of wavering Democrats, the barnstorming cross-country speeches from the president.

Senate Democratic sources said leaders feel they are on track to secure passage of the reconciliation sidecar package before Easter and have sent much of it to the Congressional Budget Office for preliminary review. One aide said the process with the CBO is at a stage where leaders are still tinkering with the package as they get feedback from the nonpartisan agency.

One senior Senate Democratic aide said Obama has largely succeeded in making the case for an up-or-down vote, underscored by the number of Senate centrists who say they are open to voting for a reconciliation “fixer” package.

“I think that the battle to define the reasonableness of an up-or-down vote on health care has largely already been won by the White House,” said the aide. “A good bellwether of whether we’re winning that message war is the level of comfort of 51 or more [Senators]. If Republicans were breaking through … you would see a lot more skittish Members.”

Still, the aide said the vote in the Senate would be “very close. I think we are going to lose a good number of Democrats,” but not so many that the bill would fail.

House Democrats, meanwhile, are in hand-to-hand whip combat trying to woo votes, and they need the Senate’s assurance that they will act and pass a series of fixes. House Democratic leaders’ ideal solution would be to find enough votes in the Caucus for the Senate bill to offset as many as a dozen Members like Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who vow to oppose it unless abortion language is tightened. Barring that, they will have to find room for an abortion fix either attached to the reconciliation bill or added to yet another bill that would face an uncertain future in the Senate. While reconciliation bills only need 51 votes to pass, anything can be added to them, including abortion language, if 60 Senators vote to dismiss a budget point of order. That’s theoretically possible if anti-abortion Republican Senators are willing to play ball, especially given that at that point the Senate health care bill would presumably already have been signed into law.

Other Democratic fence-sitters are also getting a full-court press.

Retiring Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), a prime target, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that failing to pass a health care reform bill would be “a tragedy.” And while he would prefer a simpler bill, he doesn’t see that as a likely possibility.

“I don’t think this bill is what I would like to see us do if I could — if I ran the universe, as it were, but I don’t get to do that,” he said.

Meanwhile, nobody expects that passing a health care bill will fix the Democrats’ other election year problems. But Democrats facing energized tea party activists and an anti-incumbent wave are desperate to inject energy into their own dispirited base. And once they pass the overhaul, Democratic leaders hope the constant intraparty fighting over the public insurance option, the high-cost insurance tax, abortion language and a dozen other issues will fade.

“The hope is that the component parts are popular, so once we have one product and we are all selling the same thing and can talk about those parts instead of what we want to see changed or arguing among ourselves, that the view of people will change,” said a House Democratic leadership aide. “There is a lot of confusion about what the bill will and won’t do.”

Instead of Democrat vs. Democrat, leaders will be on friendlier territory: Democrat vs. Republican. And they’re convinced voters still don’t like the GOP and trust it less on health care than they do Democrats.

Republicans are trying to cast doubt on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) commitment to passing a fixer bill as part of a broader effort to sow doubt among fence-sitting moderate House Democrats, who hold the keys to the outcome.

Republicans could end up as a winner either way. If it passes, they can attack Democrats for voting for an enormous, several-thousand-page bill few voters understand that includes a host of new taxes, budget cuts and bureaucracies. If it fails, Democrats expect Republicans will claim victory, while still attacking them for voting for earlier versions of the bill, and for showing Democrats can’t govern even when they hold historic majorities and the White House with the country in the deepest recession since the Great Depression.

“They will hang the first vote around people’s necks, and Members won’t be able to point to constituent X or Y or Z who now has coverage who didn’t or someone who lost their job or whose costs skyrocketed and who are now protected,” said a House Democratic leadership aide.

Republicans also haven’t been shy about predicting Democratic doom if the House passes the Senate bill. Regardless of whether it gets fixed later, Republicans plan to tar House Democrats with the special deals that bill includes for Nebraska, Louisiana, Florida and others.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) acknowledged Sunday that the reconciliation effort was beside the point and attempted to frighten vulnerable House Democrats by predicting that their vote for the Senate bill would spell political doom.

“All of this discussion about the second bill, the reconciliation bill is really kind of irrelevant. If the House passes the Senate bill, it goes to the president for his signature,” McConnell said on ABC’s “This Week.” “That means that every single Member of the House that voted for this will have voted for the ‘Kickback,’ the ‘Purchase’ and the ‘Gator Aid’ — all of that and the Medicare cuts. Every election this fall will be a referendum on this bill.”

There also are no guarantees that the bill will get more popular, with Republicans saying that Democrats haven’t exactly been successful selling the stimulus package as the savior of the economy.

And many of the benefits don’t take effect until 2014, while many of the taxes take effect much sooner.

“What are the odds that this thing gets more popular once people start paying taxes?” said a House Republican leadership aide.