THE BLOG
11/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Getting Past the Senate

One of the truisms of life in DC is that whenever one party controls the presidency, the House, and the Senate, it is virtually certain that the last of those three institutions will be the toughest nut to crack in terms of actually getting anything done. Between the filibuster, a variety of other arcane procedural rules, the clubby atmosphere of the chamber, and the six-year term making Senators less concerned about the year-to-year swings of their constituents, the Senate is inherently slower and more resistant to change.

That well-known fact to political insiders has congealed into a hardened nugget of conventional wisdom about the health care fight, which is that there is no way a strong health care reform package, including a public option, can make it out of that body. However, if you really look at reality, at what we actually know, that piece of conventional wisdom is mythology.

The Baucus mark-up only adds to this conventional wisdom, of course. But keep in mind that Senate Finance is almost without question the most conservative committee in either house of Congress right now. Its chair, Max Baucus, is in the top five Democrats in terms of conservatism, and has been historically very close to big business and the ranking Republican on the committee (Grassley). He was happy to cut the deal with Grassley in 2001, against the wishes of the vast majority of the Democratic caucus, for the massive Bush tax cut for the rich that was the main cause of our massive federal deficit over the last few years. Other key committee Democrats like Conrad and Bingaman, of the Gang of Six fame, aren't exactly liberally stalwarts either.

But in a soon-to-be-60-Democrats chamber (when Kennedy is replaced), the most conservative committee does not determine things for the rest of the Senate.

Let's look at the actual facts in terms of passing a bill acceptable to most Democrats:

  • There are between 44 and 50 Senators, depending on how you interpret their public statements, who have said they would support a public option if it was part of the health care package.

  • There are six other Senators (plus a new Massachusetts Senator, likely to soon be appointed by Deval Patrick once he law re Massachusetts appointments is changed) who have stated no public position on the issue. At least some of these are likely to be open to it with the right amount of arm-twisting by President Obama and Harry Reid.
  • Depending on how you interpret their various muddled statements, there are three Democratic-caucusing Senators (Lieberman, Landrieu, Nelson) who have stated outright opposition to a public option.
  • There are no (zero, nada, not a single one) Democratic Senators who have announced that they would join a Republican filibuster in the event Democrats decide not to go to reconciliation to pass a bill. That's not to say it couldn't come to that, but no Democratic Senator has said they would.
  • Reconciliation is a very live option. Many experts in Senate rules think it can be used to pass the financing and public option parts of the health care bill, and Reid has indicated a willingness to use any procedure available to him.
  • These are the facts about the Senate, facts which apparently are not being considered by every pundit and every public official who says the votes aren't there for a public option. The conventional wisdom -- fed in no small part by well-connected insurance industry lobbyists who spend every day running around Washington telling every reporter and political insider they know that "the votes for a public option aren't there" -- is simply false.

    One of the reasons so many House and movement progressives are a little peeved about all the unnamed administration sources and the signals that the White House is backing off on this issue is that it is apparent that the Senate can be won on this issue with just a little bit of elbow grease and arm-twisting. It won't be easy, but getting this bill passed is within reach, if the White House and Harry Reid fight for it. The clubby nature of the Senate might have to be shaken up, the bipartisan comity might have to be given up, and insurance industry lobbyists/contributors might have to be angered. But passing a strong, comprehensive bill, with a public option, through the Senate is eminently doable.

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