Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 23, 2009

LEVERAGE.... Jonathan Cohn wrote a good lay-of-the-land piece last night on the state of the health care reform fight, noting, among other things, the "unambiguous." "unyielding," and "obstinate" efforts of center-right Democrats undermine the Senate bill.

But Cohn's point about reform's champions is the one I keep mulling over.

To be sure, Liberals can flex their muscle, too. Bernie Sanders made very clear, in his own statements over the weekend, that he wasn't guaranteeing to give his vote -- particularly if conservative Democrats (and former Democrats) extract even more concessions.

Sanders is right to play hardball like this, but, at the end of the day, it's hard to imagine he'd cast the vote to kill health care reform. He simply cares too much about the people even a weakened bill would help. The same goes for Sherrod Brown, who's emerging as a leading voice for progressives. Their interest in helping their fellow man is, in strategic terms, a great weakness.

I not only think this is right, I think it's a dynamic that will inevitably shape the debate over the next month (or more). We're dealing with a series of upcoming negotiations in which conservative Dems' indifference gives them leverage. In other words, Lieberman, Nelson, & Co. don't much care if this once-in-a-generation opportunity implodes, while reform advocates care very much. These rather obvious bargaining positions create a playing field that is anything but level.

Put it this way: imagine there's a big meeting with every member of the Democratic caucus in both chambers. You stand at the front of the room and make a presentation: "If health care reform falls apart after having come this far, tens of millions of Americans will suffer; costs will continue to soar; the public will perceive Democrats as too weak and incompetent to act on their own agenda; the party will lose a lot of seats in the midterms and possible forfeit its majority; and President Obama will have suffered a devastating defeat that will severely limit his presidency going forward. No one will even try to fix the dysfunctional system again for decades, and the existing problems will only get worse."

For progressive Democrats, the response would be, "That's an unacceptable outcome, which we have to avoid."

For conservative Democrats, the response would be, "We can live with failure."

This necessarily affects negotiations. One contingent wants to avoid failure; the other contingent considers failure a satisfactory outcome. Both sides know what the other side is thinking.

Yes, progressive Democrats can force the issue, keep the bill intact, and force Nelson, Landrieu, Lieberman, and Lincoln to kill the legislation, in the process making clear exactly who was responsible for the debacle. But that's cold comfort -- the goal isn't to position center-right Dems to take the blame for failure; the goal ostensibly is to pass a bill that will do a lot of good for a lot of people.

The push for more "compromise" isn't going to be pretty.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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I'm pretty sure forcing Americans to buy health insurance that won't work when they try to use it will kill the urge for universal, government run healthcare for generations too.

Posted by: soullite on November 23, 2009 at 10:15 AM | PERMALINK

All those Obamatons must be sooooo happy their idol stuck by Joe Lieberman. I mean, punishing him would have been completely petty and meanspirited!

Posted by: soullite on November 23, 2009 at 10:18 AM | PERMALINK

You are likely correct. It is a shame because this bill won't control costs in the short term (or I'd guess long term either) and the middle class will be pissed off. Then the D's lose and we are stuck with right wing pyscho's and grid lock.

Posted by: JM on November 23, 2009 at 10:19 AM | PERMALINK

Mandates and no public option is bad for the people not good for the people so killing the monster and blaming the people responsible seems like it'd be the right thing to do. Then get those bastards out of office.

Thanks not just the right thing for the people but the right thing for the Democratic party. A bill that forces you to buy crap insurance from a private company will kill them for a generation.

Posted by: Jay on November 23, 2009 at 10:20 AM | PERMALINK

Oh, gee, Steve, are you saying there's a bunch of corporate cronies in the Congress who dont give a fuck what happens to the American peeps so long as the corporate grease keeps flowing in their direction and they stay in their cushy powerful jobs? Borderline sociopaths?

God, I caint hardly believe anyone would say such despicable things about the united snakes government. Maybe the Repugnants, but not our ever-lovin' the Dims...

Posted by: neill on November 23, 2009 at 10:21 AM | PERMALINK

Can we let them play their cards so that they're all primaried (Joe et al.) and then use reconciliation?

Posted by: DougMN on November 23, 2009 at 10:22 AM | PERMALINK

OK - they don't care about failure on health care reform. Surely there are some things they DO care about that be used for leverage.

Posted by: MadLad on November 23, 2009 at 10:23 AM | PERMALINK

Why, pray tell, are they not using reconciliation?

Posted by: JM on November 23, 2009 at 10:23 AM | PERMALINK

JM, they don't actually want a progressive bill and they are hiding behind senate rules and faux-civility?

The same reason they never did anything about Bush.

Posted by: soullite on November 23, 2009 at 10:27 AM | PERMALINK

Our Mr. Smith doesn't have a Senator Paine with a guilty conscience. Looks like anyone who stands up for the people will get steamrolled (and the people with him).

Viva la republic! *sigh*

Posted by: Gridlock on November 23, 2009 at 10:27 AM | PERMALINK

Neill - Not sure about the"borderline" part of sociopath.

Posted by: Little Dick on November 23, 2009 at 10:32 AM | PERMALINK

Also, remember all those times some random conservative Democrat needed votes/money/volunteers and you moderates kept saying "We have to support them!" and "Stop being a purity troll!".

Shove it out your asses you dimwitted cretins.

Posted by: soullite on November 23, 2009 at 10:33 AM | PERMALINK

Plus, for better or for ill, the real action is still going to be in Conference. If we can just get a bill, any bill, through the Senate, the finer points of the process will be lost, when Senator who vote for "the" bill, try to vote against the Conference report. So the composition of this body will be all-important.

Posted by: jhm on November 23, 2009 at 10:33 AM | PERMALINK

This advantage Blue Dogs have over liberals is something they share with the GOPers.

For this reason, they can suggest any pie-in-the-sky 'solution' they want since the bottom line is, it doesn't have to work.

Posted by: leo on November 23, 2009 at 10:35 AM | PERMALINK

steve hill has a nice little piece on teh Clown Car today posted here:


Posted by: neill on November 23, 2009 at 10:37 AM | PERMALINK

Why hasn't Obama used his magic powers, the ones that I know he has, to "twist arms" and force Ben Nelson to walk around the capitol naked in the freezing cold? That would make me feel good, and be good strategic politics, too.

This is all Obama's fault! He is too soft. Everyone who disagrees is an Obamatonbot. This is all so easy, if only pathetic Democrats would be tougher and not compromise. THAT is the way to win, folks! Let's teach em a lesson.

Posted by: ProgPoliticsMaster on November 23, 2009 at 10:45 AM | PERMALINK

In other words, Lieberman, Nelson, & Co. don't much care if this once-in-a-generation opportunity implodes,

Don't care? Hell, I'd say they're counting on it.

Posted by: Bobo Teh Clown on November 23, 2009 at 10:46 AM | PERMALINK

What a great talking point. Someone should start asking the hold outs, "Can you live with failure?" Put the blaim squarely where it belongs. Not just conservadems, but those on the right as well.

Posted by: grs on November 23, 2009 at 10:47 AM | PERMALINK

For progressives to kill the bill over the public option would be insane! Whatever form it would take--opt in, opt out, triggered-- it would only be for a few million people. Just get the damned thing passed; our majority will shrink next year. We can't be a majority party in this country without some centrists, and no, they do not believe "we can live with failure"-- did you not listen to Sen. Lincoln's speech on the senate floor the other day? For what it's worth, I'm for single payer, but this country is what it is.

Posted by: t case on November 23, 2009 at 10:50 AM | PERMALINK

One contingent wants to avoid failure; the other contingent considers failure a satisfactory outcome.

If what passes is a lousy bill, it will be a failure for everyone.

Posted by: qwerty on November 23, 2009 at 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

Aside from all the blamestorming about how we ever let such conservative corporatist dems into the party(as opposed to having a few more Repubs in the minority, if that makes it any better--they'll be there soon enough), I think the real question now is, if they're going to make ridiculous demands and hold the bill hostage, why doesn't Harry the Flaccid just move forward with reconciliation and quit wasting everyone's time?

but hey, good luck getting more progressive dems elected in Nebraska, Louisiana, Arkansas and North Dakota. If that's the requirement, then there really will be no reform for another generation--or until the entire system collapses.

Anyone see the piece on end of life healthcare costs on 60 minutes last night? The doctor they interviewed was a better reform advocate than most congressmen I've seen.

Posted by: Allan Snyder on November 23, 2009 at 10:54 AM | PERMALINK

The same political dynamic existed for Bush's tax give-aways for the wealthy, the prescription give-away for bigh pharma, corporate deregulation for big bidness, and the military spending give-aways for Haliburton, KBR, Blackwater etc.

Progressive Democrats could have obstructed, filibustered, placed holds, demanded that entire bills be read, and insisted on unreasonable amendments but they never do.

If they had many of our current problems would not exist. But, progressive Democrats never, ever play "hardball" and everyone knows this. The repugs made some noise about up or down votes and nuclear options, and got to do everything they wanted.

All the talk about a few thousand angry teabaggers got vastly more coverage than the hundreds of thousands who protested in cities all over this nation against the Bush/Cheney war of choice in Iraq. The our representatives stand by as the Cheney's, Palins, Bachmanns, and Foxxs of the nation revise history and inflate numbers using video tricks.

Progressive democrat's inability to stand on principle and force an issue home creates dispair, hoplesness, and apathy in the progressive base.

I am sick and tired of the excuses. Stop asking me for money, and do your job, or get out of the way let someone with a spine take your place.

Posted by: Winkandanod on November 23, 2009 at 10:57 AM | PERMALINK

Reconcilliation, followed by a scorched-Earth policy toward the committee chairs and other perks enjoyed by the center Dems. Lieberman, et al only have as much leverage as Harry Reid is willing to give them.

Posted by: dr. bloor on November 23, 2009 at 10:57 AM | PERMALINK

Can someone explain why reconciliation is not even being discussed or considered?

Posted by: Paul Moeller on November 23, 2009 at 11:31 AM | PERMALINK

Personally, I think the liberal democrats *should* be obstinate, demand concessions of their own, and vote against the final bill if it isn't liberal enough. If it leads to the bill failing, so be it. Far better to have a club to wield over these bullying right-wingers than to let them continue running this country.

Sooner or later, you have to take a stand and stop letting people push you around. Besides, we the people threw the GOP out of office for a reason, and that reason was *NOT* to just have the democrats become the GOP themselves.

Posted by: Shade Tail on November 23, 2009 at 11:33 AM | PERMALINK

Reconciliation may not be the greatest choice to craft a bill, but WTF? Look at the steaming pile of shit they're hoping to vote for now! Take all of these butt-fuckers out of the equation, now?! Dawg Dems, I spit my last breath at thee!

Posted by: The Trollop Party on November 23, 2009 at 11:48 AM | PERMALINK

I agree and disagree, Shade Tail. Yes, liberal democrats should consistently say, "This is what we wanted," and to that end I'm glad that Reid put a public option in the bill. He didn't have to, but at least it will become very clear who killed it.

On the other hand, I think that the progressive agenda is MUCH better served at this point by getting *any* form of health care bill passed. If something is passed then progressives will look like they are getting things done. If it goes down, then progressives will look like failures. That's just the way these things work. Far better to pass the bill, even without a public option (which at this point is sooo watered down as to be meaningless), and then stick it to Lieberman, Nelson, et al. on a host of minor issues (e.g., funding for pet projects in their states).

Again, we want progressives to appear capable of passing legislation in the face of 100% conservative resistance. That shows strength. Meanwhile, we should very much make an example of at least ONE of the gang of four. My pick is Lieberman just because Connecticut is the bluest state represented by the gang of four.

Posted by: Noogs on November 23, 2009 at 11:52 AM | PERMALINK

Could someone please, oh please, try to clearly outline when 60 votes are needed, and when 50 are needed? Or point to a clear explanation where this was done? As I understand it, there are 38-39 confirmed No votes. F*** them. There are something like 45-49 Yes, depending on which nuance of the bill you choose. So.... under what circumstances, if any, do they just need to just get 1-2 more, or 5 more, + Biden's vote, to pass something, vs the wonderfully undemocratic 60 votes by small pissant state senators ?

And, isn't part of the game in the senate the issues of unanimous consent and other clever tactics- ie, ANY one senator can hold any legislation - such that the R's, under normal procedures, can only go far before Reid can threaten ANY of their pet bills with a hold? OR do the R's, by being the party of no, take that threat away? Are there threats that can be made in the 2011 appropriations bill that would limit R stall tactics? help. Can someone explain?


Posted by: bigwisc on November 23, 2009 at 12:02 PM | PERMALINK

Isn't waiting for the entire system to collapse sort of like... letting your medical condition deteriorate until you have to get health care from the emergency room, meaning that it will be as chaotic and anxiety-provoking and expensive as possible?

Posted by: FlipYrWhig on November 23, 2009 at 12:10 PM | PERMALINK

"Can someone explain why reconciliation is not even being discussed or considered?" - Paul

As I understand it, anything done in reconciliation can be easily un-done in reconciliation. A bill that passes through both chambers and signed into law by the president becomes much more permanent. Even a weakened bill can be strengthened over time. Anything passed thru recon will be trashed by the republicans as soon as they get 50%+1 again.

And apart from all of that, even though it is "technically" doable, passing major legislation thru reconciliation would be a bad precedent. I wouldn't want the republicans forcing their full agenda thru reconciliation. They could say that the dems did it first and they would use it ruthlessly. Just like their constant use of the filibuster now: "Well, the dems filibustered our judges, so now we're going to filibuster everything".

Posted by: Marko on November 23, 2009 at 12:18 PM | PERMALINK

As far as I'm concerned, without a public option, this entire exercise is just a massive giveaway to the insurance industry. Without a public option, I hope it does fail. Better that than making millions of Americans blame Democrats when they are forced to buy shitty, overpriced insurance policies that won't provide any decent coverage. Is anyone here really so stupid as to think that toothless provisions that promise to ban recission and preexisting condition clauses but which have no enforcement mechanisms at all are worth the shit we are having to put up with?

Posted by: Alan on November 23, 2009 at 12:32 PM | PERMALINK

At some point, it is better to do nothing than have a repeat of the awful Medicare Part D giveaway to insurers. Blanche Lincoln and the rest of the corporatist Democrats appear to be wholly-owned subsidiaries of health insurers.

Posted by: freelunch on November 23, 2009 at 12:38 PM | PERMALINK

Alan: Yes, the Public Option is the "Grand Prize". Now we will witness all the sausage-making deals needed in order to get it. And personally, I don't really care much what Reid et al has to give away in order to get it. Give Lieberman whatever he wants. In 5 yrs it won't matter any more, as long as we have a Public Option. That is the key to the Individual Mandate, which is the key to eliminating Pre-existing Conditions and Recission.

Posted by: Marko on November 23, 2009 at 12:40 PM | PERMALINK

"For conservative Democrats, the response would be, 'We can live with failure.'"

Maybe they can literally live with failure, but their political lives are in serious danger. If the Democrats take a beating at the polls next year because they failed to pass health care reform, who the hell do they think will lose elections? The safe liberal congresspeople in blue states, or the blue dog a-holes out in swingland? Do they think the Republicans will go easy on them? They are either a) stupid idiots or b) banking on nice lucrative careers as health insurance lobbyists after they lose their elections.

Posted by: Kid Charles on November 23, 2009 at 12:42 PM | PERMALINK

"For conservative Democrats, the response would be, 'We can live with failure.'"

The keyword in that sentence is "We". If there's more than one senator that opposes, then they have some political cover. But none of them would want to be labeled as "The One" who killed HCR - not even Joe Lieberman.

Posted by: Marko on November 23, 2009 at 12:56 PM | PERMALINK

Conservadems are more likely that progressives to lose their job.

That would also be part of the negotiation calculus.

Posted by: sherifffruitfly on November 23, 2009 at 12:57 PM | PERMALINK

No matter what Senator Reid says, the answer is:


Posted by: kindness on November 23, 2009 at 1:04 PM | PERMALINK

Steve - former Senator Tom Daschle, who's apparently been dispatched by the Administration to cajole reluctant Dems into supporting a health insurance reform bill, had pretty much the same take as yours last night on Weekend All Things Considered. Progressives have been marginalized on this from the beginning and stupid right-wing Democratic Congressmembers want them to "compromise" now, when there's virtually nothing remaining of the Progressives' positions. The sheer idiocy of processing something as important as people's access to health care as a game of opposing strategies rather than as envisioning what's needed and how best to get there is so maddening that I'm barely opening sites like this one anymore. And when the DCCC called yesterday, crowing about the bill that bassed the House and begging for bucks, I gave them what-for. Electing DINOs has done nothing to advance the people's interests.

Posted by: ghillie on November 23, 2009 at 1:21 PM | PERMALINK

The conservative Democrats are the ones in danger of losing their jobs. In addition, their pink states are the ones most in need of a public option: those are the places with the least health insurance competition and the weakest State regulation. On the other hand, the conservative Dems are also the cheapest for lobbyists to buy.

Posted by: keith on November 23, 2009 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

"The conservative Democrats are the ones in danger of losing their jobs"

You don't understand how this game works. Any Blue Dogs who lose in 2010, after blocking the Public Option, will receive very highly-paid lobbyist jobs from the insurance industry. For all we know, that's their preferred outcome.

Posted by: Chris on November 23, 2009 at 5:43 PM | PERMALINK

"As I understand it anything done in reconciliation can easily be un-done in reconciliation. A bill that passes through both chambers and signed into law becomes much more permanent...Anything passed through recon will be trashed by the republicans as soon as they get 50% + 1 again." Marko @ 12:18 PM.

I, too, could be mistaken, but I think the following is accurate:
Reconciliation occurs when bills from each chamber, representing the same piece of legislation but whose contents differ, are put together into one bill that is then sent back to both chambers for a final vote. For any piece of legislation to become a law, the exact same bill has to be passed by both House and Senate before being sent on to the President for signing (or vetoing).
I have no idea where you have gotten the impression that any bill that has gone through the reconciliation process is "easier" to repeal; any piece of legislation can be repealed by a simple majority vote in either the House or Senate.
Normally, any bill that does go through reconciliation must then be re-introduced onto the floor for debate, which in present circumstances means needing 60 votes for cloture. Any finance bill, such as HCR, can avoid the necessity for cloture under the Byrd Ruling which requires only a simple majority and allows no amendments.

Posted by: Doug on November 23, 2009 at 6:10 PM | PERMALINK

Doug: Here's a quick Wiki on budget reconciliation:

Not to be confused with the House/Senate final merging of two competing bills.

Posted by: Marko on November 23, 2009 at 7:36 PM | PERMALINK

I want to quote your post in my blog. It can?
And you et an account on Twitter?

Posted by: regeda on December 25, 2009 at 3:55 AM | PERMALINK



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