The divide between progressives on whether to support the health care bill is one of the most striking things I have seen in all my years in politics. The fact that so many good people are on different sides of whether this compromise should be accepted is the true sign of how complicated both the politics and policy is on this issue.
Beyond the well and passionately argued opinions on both sides, though, there are two facts which are undeniable: for better or worse, this bill passing the Senate keeps the process moving forward; and, for better or worse, the Senate bill is simply unpassable in the House.
Sen. Conrad and all the pundits can deliver all the pronouncements they want about how the House will just have to live with what the Senate did, but between the lack of a public option, the bad abortion language, the tax on health benefits, and other concessions to insurers, this bill cannot get 218 votes in the House. Nancy Pelosi is the best Speaker, and best Democratic House leader, since Tip O'Neill, but not even she cannot corral 218 votes for the Senate bill. Yes, it is true that she could pick up some Blue Dogs who like this far more conservative bill better, but remember that a lot of them are from fairly conservative districts, and for all the stuff progressives don't like in the Senate bill, it is still being attacked viciously by Republicans and the conservative attack machine. Between their political squeamishness, their lack of party loyalty, and the fact that they already voted no once, it will be tough to pick up a lot more of those votes.
The House bill had a two vote margin last time. Say you can pick up 10 moderate Dems who voted no last time. How many votes will be lost on the choice language? How many on the benefits tax? How many on the lack of a public option? How many on the combination of all of the above?
The Senate, and their allies in the White House, may not want to negotiate, but they are going to have to if they want a bill. The abortion language is a mess, and has to get better. Giving one break after another to the insurance industry after stripping the public option language is adding insult to injury. Taxing decent but hardly extravagant health plans is not acceptable. And this bill can't get 218 votes without making some changes in these items at a minimum.
As I have written before, no step in the process of passing a health care bill was ever destined to be easy. The Senate has no margin for error, and so progressives will have to accept some big disappointments, but the margin for error in the House is pretty damn small, too. Everyone needs to be serious about negotiation here, or this thing will not get done.
Not sure if this will make anyone feel better, but it does not look as though progressives are not the only members of Congress folding these days.
Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) had been organizing bloc of Senate Democrats who demanded the creation of a social Security / Medicare commission in exchange for raising the national debt ceiling. Just one month ago, they sounded oh so serious:
Senators from both parties on Tuesday put new pressure on Speaker Nancy Pelosi to turn the power to trim entitlement benefits over to an independent commission.
Seven members of the Senate Budget Committee threatened during a Tuesday hearing to withhold their support for critical legislation to raise the debt ceiling if the bill calling for the creation of a bipartisan fiscal reform commission were not attached.
Absent some agreement, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) told POLITICO he is open to a short-term interim adjustment giving the Treasury whatever authority it needs to keep managing assets into February, for example. "It's been done before to just do it by a date," Conrad said. "30 days, 45 days."
Conrad may yet win this fight. In fact, he may have already secured a promise from the Obama administration to announce some sort of commission during the state of the union address (which would fall right toward the end of his 30-45 day proposal). Still, he has definitely caved a little bit, and redrawn his line further back. And once the caving begins...
As I wrote, I don't know if this will actually make anyone here feel better, but it looks like Progs are the only ones caving in Congress. That does make me feel a tiny bit better, and even makes me wonder if some sort of deal between the two caving sides can be reached.
These 15 Democratic Senators will refuse to raise the debt ceiling, thereby causing the United States to default on its debt by mid or late December. Such a default will vastly increase the overall amount the federal government has to pay on its debt.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi turns over Congressional power on Social Security and Medicare to an unelected commission that will almost certainly propose significant cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits. The recommendations of this commission will be sent back to Congress in the form of legislation that cannot be amended, which will be granted a vote, and which will pass with the support of 60% of both branches of Congress.
I have learned from a source that Kent Conrad is meeting with President Obama, tonight. While the details of the meeting are unknown, Conrad is the ringleader of this group of Senate Democrats, and so it is highly likely that the meeting concerns the proposed independent commission for Medicare and Social Security.
We will only know what happens in the meeting based on future actions from Congress and the White House. There are four basic options:
President Obama convinces Senator Conrad to drop the threat, and raise the debt ceiling with no strings attached.
President Obama convinces Senator Conrad to drop the threat in exchange for a token concession on other legislation, or on another summit discussing the problem This happened at the start of the year.
President Obama agrees with Senator Conrad, but tells him he that he will handle it himself around next year's budget (with an announcement likely in the State of the Union address).
President Obama gives Conrad the commission now.
Depending on which of these four scenarios unfolds, we will know what happens at the meeting.
This is extremely high stakes-arguably the biggest policy meeting to take place in months. And you heard about it here, on Open Left.
Of all the various blocs and gangs that have been formed in Congress this year, Senators Bayh, Conrad, Feinstein, Lieberman and Warner have managed to form the most regressive one yet. Currently, these five Democrats are demanding that Speaker Pelosi hand over all relevant Congressional power to an independent commission that will be allowed to slash and partially privatize Social Security and Medicare, or else they will allow the United States to default on its debt.
Senators from both parties on Tuesday put new pressure on Speaker Nancy Pelosi to turn the power to trim entitlement benefits over to an independent commission.
Seven members of the Senate Budget Committee threatened during a Tuesday hearing to withhold their support for critical legislation to raise the debt ceiling if the bill calling for the creation of a bipartisan fiscal reform commission were not attached. (...)
(...) Congress is under pressure to raise the cap on what the federal government can borrow by mid-December. If the debt ceiling is not raised above its current $12.1 trillion mark by then, the government will exceed its borrowing limits and will be forced to default on the debt. Economists have warned that the inevitable result would be a lowering of the U.S. credit rating, triggering substantial increases in the interest rates the government is already paying.
But before Tuesday's hearing was over, Sens. Conrad, Gregg, Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) publicly vowed to vote against raising the debt ceiling if a budget reform commission bill doesn't come along with it.
The Republican threats don't matter, since only Democrats are needed to pass the bill.
Let's review the threat that these five Democrats are making:
They will allow the United States to default on its debt, which will vastly increase the overall amount we have to pay on our debt
Speaker Nancy Pelosi turns over Congressional power on Social Security and Medicare to an unelected commission that will almost certainly propose deep cuts in Social Security and Medicare entitlements. Keep in mind that if deep cuts to Social Security and Medicare pass under a Democratic trifecta, the party would be doomed at the ballot box for years to come.
This is completely insane, and there is no choice but to call this bluff.
Let's see these five Democratic Senators explain to the entire nation why they allowed the country to default on its debt. No matter how safe their seats appear to be, no Senator is going to win reelection after making the entire country default on its debt Their rationale does not matter. Being blamed for making the country default on its debt-especially after all five of these Democrats voted in favor of the Wall Street bailout and are demanding that Social Security and Medicare be cut-will be the effective end of their political careers.
Go for it, guys. Form your national suicide pact. Tell the country that you are demanding deep cuts in Social Security and Medicare, or else you will personally cause the United States debt to double. Let's see how well that message plays on the air.
This week, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee joined Rep. Alan Grayson to deliver nearly 90,000 petition signatures to Sen. Harry Reid -- telling him to lay down the law with Dem Senators who are threatening to block an up-or-down vote on health care.
Along the way, a funny thing happened. We ran into Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) -- one of the lead public option opponents -- walking around the Senate with his puppy. We talked with him about our petition, all while he had dog-in-arms, and we released the video Friday.
But now, we're announcing a fun-filled caption contest.
The most conservative committee in Congress is finally getting ready to consider the first public votes on the public option, with amendments by Schumer and Rockefeller that will likely be considered on Tuesday. The Finance Committee, led by two of the most conservative Democrats in the House or Senate -- Max Baucus and Kent Conrad -- will be the first place the public option finally sees the light of day, getting debate and votes in front of everyone.
Given the poll numbers, and Baucus' past statements supporting the public option, you would think this would be a no-brainer, that no Democrat would want to risk alienating voters who overwhelmingly support it, or the fired-up party activists and donors who have been passionately fighting for it for months. Look at the polling analysis just done by Health Care for America Now:
Support for Individual Mandate Contingent on Public Option: The polls, conducted by Anzalone Liszt Research and Lake Research Partners for Health Care for America Now in mid-September, each found that likely 2010 voters oppose "requiring everyone to buy and be covered by a private health insurance plan" but support "requiring everyone to buy and be covered by a health insurance plan with a choice between a public option and private insurance plans." A mandate that individuals have coverage or pay a fine is a key feature of health care reform proposals that require insurance companies to cover everyone regardless of pre-existing conditions.
Nationally, voters oppose a mandate to purchase private insurance by 64% to 34% but support a mandate with a choice of private or public insurance by 60% to 37%.
"Requiring everyone to buy and be covered by a private health insurance plan"
National: Oppose 64% to 34%
House Swing: Oppose 60% to 34%
Maine: Oppose 55% to 35%
"Requiring everyone to buy and be covered by a health insurance plan with a choice between a public option and private insurance plans"
National: Favor 60% to 37%
House Swing: Favor 50% to 46%
Maine: Favor 55% to 40%
Note: In all three polls, half of those surveyed were asked each question.
All of the health care reform proposals that have passed Congressional committees to date, including three House committees and the Senate HELP Committee, include an individual mandate and the choice of private or public health insurance. The Chairman's mark introduced into the Senate Finance Committee includes the individual mandate without the choice of a public health insurance option.
With numbers like this, and with the entire Democratic base mobilized intensely around the issue, you would have to be politically tone deaf as a Democrat to oppose this, but this is the Senate Finance Committee, so public option advocates are likely to lose these votes. The question, though, will be the margin. On a committee this conservative, far more conservative than the Senate as a whole, if we only get seven votes for the public option amendments, that would have to be considered a major political victory, and a sign that the public option can definitely get a majority vote on the floor.
Of course, the traditional media won't report it that way -- anything that goes against their cast-in-iron conventional wisdom belief that the public option is dead will not be reported. Chuck Schumer nailed it last night on Rachel Maddow: this is just the first step, in the most conservative possible setting. This vote is all about laying the ground work for the Senate floor fight and the conference committee fight after that, both of which are far more favorable to public option advocates. With polling numbers like those above, and an activist base on fire on this issue, it is going to be more and more difficult for Democrats to vote against the public option when they have to vote in the light of day.
Ezra Klein has been arguing that the public option, and other progressive elements of the Democratic agenda, can't pass because the Obama administration is unable to pressure conservative Democratic Senators. Klein tells us those Senators, after all, aren't shrinking violets:
The unifying idea here is that someone can just go into a back room and torture Max Baucus and Kent Conrad. But how?
The controversy over Republican Rep. Joe Wilson's shouting out "You Lie!" at the President over his claim that illegal immigrants wouldn't benefit from health-care reform apparently sparked some reconsideration of the relevant language. "We really thought we'd resolved this question of people who are here illegally, but as we reflected on the President's speech last night we wanted to go back and drill down again," said Senator Kent Conrad, one of the Democrats in the talks after a meeting Thursday morning. Baucus later that afternoon said the group would put in a proof of citizenship requirement to participate in the new health exchange - a move likely to inflame the left.
So, there you have it. That is how you pressure Senators like Kent Conrad and Max Baucus to change legislation. They aren't shrinking violets, but they will cave to an obscure South Carolina Congressman calling President Obama a liar on national television, even when that Congressman's apology has been the main focus of the news cycle for the last 36 hours..
But remember--there is no way that the Obama administration could possibly apply the same sort of pressure to Baucus and Conrad and Joe Wilson can. Wilson is just vastly more powerful and influential than the Obama administration. And don't even get me started on the relative power balance between the Progressive Block and Joe Wilson. That is a mismtach if I ever saw one.
Given the power balance at play, this is a pretty smart move by Baucus and Conrad. First, it will undoubtedly get a lot of Republicans to support health care legislation. Second, it will also go a long way to discrediting Joe Wilson, and keeping the media tide of this story in our favor. Third, it is a good idea to deny legal, documented immigrants who are not yet citizens health care. Fourth, it keeps me excited and engaged in the fight because it shows that progressives have a real role in determining the outcome of health care legislation, especially compared to Joe Wilson. Fifth, I feel very confident now that Democrats won't back down to Republican lies. In total, few moves could have done more to strengthen the Democratic position on health care than this. Brilliant stuff.
We saw it with the stimulus, and now we are seeing it again with the budget. Once again, major political media outlets are arguing that Obama is making a mistake allowing Congress to write laws. Because, you know, heaven forbid that the legislative branch actually write legislation. The New York Times is the culprit in this case:
Mr. Obama is taking a gamble in outsourcing the drafting of his agenda's details to these five veteran lawmakers and others in Congress, each with his own political and parochial calculations.
Yes, this is truly a gamble on President Obama's part. The much safer route would have been to personally draft the bill himself, and use some sort of legal authority that doesn't exist in order to require Congress to vote on that bill without any possibility of amendment.
Look, Congress writes all federal legislation. That is simply how it works in our system of government. It simply isn't possible for the President to introduce legislation in Congress, because the President is not a member of Congress. Even though the President is required to submit a budget draft, it is just a draft, not legislation, and Congress can do whatever they want to it from that point forward. It is a distressing sign for our Republic that we have reached the point where our largest newspapers are calling it a gamble for the legislative branch to actually write our legislation.
Democratic senators are still emerging from their closed-door briefing with Obama economic adviser Larry Summers ... but a senior Democratic senator, Iowa progressive Tom Harkin, just gave me a dire buzzword: trickle-down.
"There's only one thing we've got to do in this stimulus, and that's create jobs," Harkin told me. "I'm a little concerned by the way Mr. Summers and others are going on this ... it still looks a little more to me like trickle-down."
In this post, I am not going to discuss the validity of the tax cuts themselves. I consider them worrying just as Harkin, Conrad and Kerry do, but there is another pattern emerging today that I find just as worrying: progressive concerns being intentionally ignored and / or snubbed by the transition. Here is the last line in the TPM article (more in the extended entry):
Alan Greenspan belongs to the Club of Emasculated Moderate Elites who enabled corporate theocrats to destroy the American Dream at home and annihilate our moral authority abroad. A prerequisite for membership is to first allow crazy ideologues to exploit their prestige and later disown the disastrous policies their reputations facilitated. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell is a charter member of this club and a pathetic figure who criticizes the Bush Administration about Iraq when it no longer matters. Powell's domestic policy soul mate, Alan Greenspan, joined him with his new memoir, The Age of Turbulence: Adventures In a New World.
"The truth is we don't have the votes to end the war," said Democrat Kent Conrad of North Dakota, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee.
"We're going to try to move the things that we can move on domestic issues like student loans, education and children's health care and energy. These are places where we can have tangible accomplishments. And we hope to give people greater confidence in what Congress is doing."