Conventional wisdom has a powerful grip on the minds of most political players inside the beltway, no matter what common sense, actual political reality, the best policy arguments, and actual polling say. Pundits, traditional media reporters, columnists, powerful lobbyists, insiders, White House officials and Senators go into a legislative battle convinced that a certain scenario will play out, and keep telling themselves that over and over, no matter what. This standard fact of DC life has been especially true in the health care fight, the conventional wisdom being that a more progressive bill could never get through the Senate, therefore the Senate Finance bill would be the compromise everyone would have to live with if we were going to get health care reform done this year. Sometimes, though, conventional wisdom runs into a brick wall of political reality and common sense, and the latter occasionally prevails, because at the end of the day, elected officials will have to defend their votes made on the floor of the House and Senate. In health care, we may be getting to that moment.
What is happening right now is that Democratic Senators not on the two health care committees know that they will be voting on the issue soon, and they are starting to look at the details of the Senate Finance and HELP committee bills. The problem for the conventional wisdom version of events is that when Senators are actually looking at having to vote for and defend the Finance bill, it is making them really nervous. The bill was crafted so heavily in favor of corporate America that voters aren't going to like it, and Senators would have a hard time defending it to their voters.
The Finance bill is still pretty awful on middle class affordability issues, even though Baucus was forced to make changes in the right direction on that issue, and middle class affordability is about as central an issue for most voters as you can get. A tax on good health insurance benefits is also incredibly unpopular, and it's in the bill. A public option is incredibly popular, and it's not in that bill. An individual mandate to buy health insurance without a public option is very unpopular, and that's what this Finance bill has in it. Business taking some responsibility for their workers' insurance, which is common sense to most voters, is noticeably lacking in the bill. On issue after issue, when it comes to doing the things that are actually popular with the voters, the Finance committee chooses to go the other direction and do the unpopular thing.
Rank and file Democratic Senators are just starting to realize all this, and are beginning to go to Harry Reid and plead with him to take more of the language from the HELP bill when he merges the two bills. Most Democratic Senators are not going to want to have to defend the unpopular mess that is the Finance bill, and the pushback against it is gearing up.
Which brings us to the 60 vote issue. The White House deserves a lot of credit for pushing through a provision in the budget bill passed earlier this year, over the objection of Budget Committee Chair Kent Conrad, that allows at least part of health care reform to go through the reconciliation process (which requires only 51 votes). That option hangs over the heads of those conservative Democrats who don't want to support a good bill, because they know if they decide to oppose health care reform, they can be rolled if needed. Even if they don't want to vote for the bill on final passage, these Democrats are going to have to decide if they want to support a Republican filibuster to kill healthcare reform. If they do, they risk the wrath of their party's President on his number one priority, the issue he knows will define him as a success or failure in the first year of his Presidency. They risk voting for all these unpopular provisions in the Senate Finance bill. They would risk a nosedive in the approval of the Democratic party nationwide, which will also hurt them in their state. They risk a drop in voter turnout among base Democratic groups in their next election. And if they actually were instrumental in killing health care reform when we had finally gotten so close, they would pretty much guarantee a serious well-funded primary challenge the next time they run. My question is: would they really risk all this knowing that if they vote with the Republicans on cloture, Democrats will just roll them and go the reconciliation route? Political common sense may finally prevail with these conservative Democrats in the end as well.
Slowly but surely, political common sense is waking the Democratic Party up. House progressives are holding firm on the public option, and Nancy Pelosi is reminding people practically everyday that she can't pass a bill without one. Senator Harkin keeps reminding people that we have a majority in the Senate to pass the public option. The Baucus bill carries more water with every passing day. Harry Reid told voters back home in Nevada that the final bill would have a public option in it (although he later waffled some to give him more flexibility to continue to deal with his Senate conservatives.) Rahm Emanuel told Charlie Rose last week that while it would be tough to get a public option out of the Senate, "that doesn't mean in the House they're not going to come to the table and demand it."
Democratic leaders waking themselves up from the conventional wisdom trance they have been in since the beginning of this debate, and are realizing that political reality and common sense may dictate having a better bill, a bill with a public option, a bill that is affordable to the middle class, be the final bill that gets signed into law. Sometimes, common sense does prevail. Hopefully, that will be the case on health care.