House And Senate Progress On Healthcare Reform

[ Posted Thursday, September 24th, 2009 – 16:38 UTC ]

The horse-trading has begun in earnest on the healthcare reform front in Congress. The sausage-making currently going on in the House and Senate has somewhat of a "through the microscope" quality to it, but it's interesting to highlight a few stories from this week for a peek into what the final legislation may look like. This will, necessarily, be an incomplete look, so I warn you in advance there won't be any sweeping conclusions at the end of the article. Consider it merely a snapshot of where things stand this week. Or two snapshots, since we'll look at each house separately.


The Senate

Max Baucus' committee is grinding through mountains of sausage this week, and will likely be doing the same thing next week, since over 560 amendments have been offered to his healthcare reform bill as of this writing. But the committee is grinding through it all at a steady pace, meaning some sort of bill will be voted out of committee at some point next week.

The media is failing (once again) to put this in perspective. This is one bill out of five (four of which were passed months ago). So while certain ideas within Baucus' bill may very well indeed make the final cut, it is in no way certain. But at least the Washington Post has been doing a pretty good job following each day's activities in the committee (here's their latest installment).

No real surprises so far, since most of the votes have been party-line affairs. The Democrats hold 13 seats on the committee, the Republicans 10. Meaning the Republicans need at least two defectors from the Democratic side to pass any of their amendments. Mostly, these amendments are political "gotcha-ism" where Republicans are forcing a vote in order to use such votes against Democrats in campaign ads during their next election. The Republicans have been whining during the whole process, but they know that they're effectively locked out by the vote count.

The only real news is how tightly the Democrats are sticking together. Finally, these Democrats are behaving more like they actually have a majority. The only real issue of any note which the Republicans have "picked off" three Democrats to pass is to uphold the White House's reputed deal with the drug makers to limit their loss of profits (this is not how it was spun by the White House at the time, but it is what it has now become) to only $80 billion. The Washington Post story led with this:

The Senate Finance Committee rejected an amendment Thursday aimed at squeezing $106 billion from the nation's pharmaceutical sector, averting the potential collapse of a deal struck between drug makers and the White House to gain industry support for health-care reform.

The measure, offered by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), would have extracted higher rebates from manufacturers on medicines sold to low-income seniors. Ten Democrats on the committee supported the amendment, but three Democrats sided with 10 Republicans to defeat the Nelson proposal. Opponents included Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who helped cut the drug industry deal with White House officials, along with Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), whose home states have a large industry presence.

But that's been the only vote of note where Democrats haven't held firm. Most of the other votes have been either 13-10 or 12-11. Baucus and his Gang of Six are not the whole committee -- a fact which largely escaped mention in recent media reports. And the other Democrats on the committee (Jay Rockefeller in particular) are a lot closer to where the House is on healthcare reform ideas. This is starting to show.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, meanwhile, has two axe blades he's sharpening up. They will fall (if, indeed, either of them does) next month. Now, Harry's always been able to talk tough when he absolutely needs to, but he usually falls short on the follow-through when it comes time to act. So there's a certain factor you have to discount from what he says. But, even so, he seems to have found a certain amount of spine in the past month or so.

Most recently, he is threatening his fellow Senators in two ways. The first is "budget reconciliation," which means a bill could pass on a simple majority of 50 (plus Vice President Biden). A few months back, Reid laid out a timetable for Baucus -- present a bill by September 15th, or we are going to leave your committee in the dust. Baucus didn't quite make the schedule, but it did light a fire under him, which was intensified by President Obama's address to Congress when they first came back to town (after their five-week break). So while Baucus still hasn't gotten a bill out of his committee yet (what the deadline was supposed to be for), he has moved forward on it, and everyone expects a bill out sometime next week. Close enough. But the second timeline was for when Reid would start the reconciliation process -- October 15th. That is getting closer, but the Senate still has a chance, before the date arrives, to (a) get a bill out of Baucus' committee, and (b) combine it in some way (more horse-trading) with the bill out of the late Senator Kennedy's committee. Meaning the floor debate for the full Senate may at least be getting started by the Ides of October. Close enough for government work, as they say.

But the second big threat Reid has been quietly making is (gasp!) to cancel a week of vacation for the Senate if a bill isn't done yet. And by "done," Reid means "passed by the Senate." This is a lot heavier leverage than most people realize, because Congresscritters sure do love their vacations. All twenty-eleven of them they take each month or so. Now, a better argument could have been made to keep them all in town all during August, but better late than never, Harry. But this is a real threat to these folks, and will (in my opinion) work wonders at motivating them to act.


The House

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, is making strides herself. The House is quietly in the process of blending their three committee bills into one to introduce on the floor for a vote. Backroom horse-trading! What is currently going on are a bunch of "whip counts." While that sounds like some sort of kinky bedroom practice, in reality it is just counting noses.

The good news here is that the Progressives appear fairly united, while the Blue Dogs seem divided. This is actually stunning news, since it so very often is the exact opposite. Progressives in the House are known for talking a good line, and then caving when it comes to vote. But this time, it is the Progressives who are strongly staying together, and the Blue Dogs who look weak and open to compromise.

Even more impressive is Pelosi, who is strongly supporting not only the public option, but also the Progressives themselves. Since leadership support is crucial in the House, this is an important point.

Pelosi has been saying all along that she's got the votes to get a public option in her final bill, and that (even more importantly) any bill without the public option will not have the votes to pass. This strong stance has obviously made a few Blue Dogs think twice about their election prospects next year, and the ghosts of 1994. Pelosi made news again this week by heaping some scorn on the idea of a "trigger" for the public option as well. Pelosi called the trigger "an excuse for doing nothing," and went on to say "I don't even want to talk about a trigger."

What all of this adds up to is the media, once again, being totally and completely wrong in their constant drumbeat of "the public option's dead." This inside-the-Beltway groupthink (or, if you prefer, "conventional wisdom") has been unanimously proclaimed by pundits from left and right for the past month or so.

But rumors of the public option's death may have been somewhat exaggerated, it seems.


-- Chris Weigant


6 Comments on “House And Senate Progress On Healthcare Reform”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    Honestly and sincerely, without any bullshit whatsoever.....

    When can we expect to see SOMETHING taken OFF the table???


  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    Keep your eyes on what goes to the full floor in both houses for a vote. That is where things will begin to come off the table.

    This will continue in a major way during the conference committee. Stay tuned... it's coming... within weeks...



  3. [3] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    Chris, that inside-the-beltway incestuous cesspool of K Street, Congress, and media figures has a name. Digby coined it: "The Village." And yes, she got it from The Prisoner.

  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Osborne Ink -

    "I am not a number... I am a free man!"

    Heh heh. I've always liked that line, myself.

    I've heard you can go to the little town in Wales and see the original "village" as it's largely the same as it was for the filming of the show. Never been to Wales, but if I go it's definitely on my list.


  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:


    Eyes peeled.. I'll be waiting... :D


  6. [6] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    Speaking of The Prisoner, Chris, have you seen the promo for AMC's remake?

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