Tuesday, February 02, 2010

1995 Redux: Call the Republicans' shut-down-the-Senate bluff

It's a given by now that Republicans will do all they can to obstruct any deal between House and Senate Democrats entailing the House passing the Senate health care bill and amending it through the reconciliation process. Jeff Davis, Greg Sargent and Karen Tumulty have explained in numbing detail how Senate Republicans can stall reconciliation fixes. Sargent:
The GOP Senate leadership has privately settled on a strategy to derail health reform if Dems try to pass the Senate bill with a fix through reconciliation, aides say: Unleash an endless stream of amendments designed to stall for time and to force Dems to take untenable votes.
The aide described the planned GOP strategy as a “free for all of amendments,” vowing Dems would face “a mountain of amendments so politically toxic they'll make the first health debate look like a post office naming.”
Notwithstanding the difficulties, what remains striking is the difference in political will between the two parties. Republicans, as ever, will act as a body to do whatever it takes to get what they want -- the death of comprehensive health care reform, a Waterloo for Obama, an electoral debacle for the Democrats to dwarf 1994. 

A path for an equally determined Democratic Party would seem to be clear enough: 1) House and Senate leaders agree in principle on reconciliation fixes. 2) The House passes the Senate bill. 3) The reconciliation process begins, before or after other pressing business such as financial reform and the jobs bill. If Republicans essentially shut down the Senate by stalling the reconciliation process, Democrats make them pay for their obstruction as Clinton did for the government shutdown in 1995.

What seems incredible to an outsider is that House Democrats' institutional mistrust and resentment of the Senate could trump their will to avoid total defeat by Republican obstructionism. In effect they've personalized the institutional constraint imposed by the by the filibuster -- as if the vast majority of their Senate colleagues are not as frustrated as they are by the disfigurations of the Senate bill imposed by Lieberman, Nelson, Landrieu and the rest of their caucus's "moderates."  It would seem a foregone conclusion that  50+ senators
can be mustered to pass the core fixes the House negotiates through reconciliation -- and that even if some of those fixes fail in process, the country and the party will be vastly better off with the Senate bill passed than with a massive legislative fail. To insist that the reconciliation fixes be passed first hands the Republicans a cudgel and makes the task vastly more difficult.

I realize that all these global calculations mean nothing if three more House Democrats (net) decide it's in their individual interests to vote against the bill than the 39 who voted against the House bill.  Once again, we come up against the camel-through-the-eye of the needle problem of passing significant legislation with no Republican votes. Therefore, talk of collective "cowardice" is of limited meaning. There is no shortage of cowardice among individual Democratic members, however -- notably including my own Rep. Bill Pascrell, Dem-NJ (8th District), who is working to kill the bill.  And it's also fair to talk (so far) of leadership failure -- from Obama and his Administration -- though the verdict remains out until the bill dies or passes.

UPDATE: This from Pelosi is disappointing:
"Don't even ask us to consider passing the Senate bill until the other legislation has passed both houses so that we're sure that it has happened, and that we know that what we would be voting for would be as effected by a reconciliation bill or whatever parliamentary initiative they have at their disposable," Pelosi said on a conference call this afternoon.

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