03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Senate Slowly Creaks Forward

If you want to stop things from happening, or slow things down to the speed of molasses, being a U.S. Senator is the world's greatest job. And if your entire political party's complete strategy is to kill every single thing proposed, it's a hell of a deal. But ever so slowly, painfully, creakily, the Senate is beginning to move forward on debating health care reform. It looks more and more like Harry Reid has gotten agreement to pass the motion to debate, the CBO has finally scored the bill, and the debate will likely begin next week -- or, who knows given all the delaying tactics, maybe after they get back from Thanksgiving. But things are starting to move.

The motion to debate is only the first step, though, in these ridiculous Senate rules. Democrats are as of right now still probably four or five votes short on getting 60 votes to end debate. The same problem we knew about from the very earliest stages of this fight -- that four or five conservative Democrats in the Senate and 60 or so progressives in the House are still dug in on seemingly irreconcilable differences on the public option -- is still a big fat unresolved problem. Abortion looms as the second most vexing issue. And then there are half a dozen really important and problematic other issues to be resolved. It will be high drama right up to the end, and if anyone tells you they know how it's going to come out, they are fooling both you and themselves.

Reid has a host of alternatives once this gets to the floor, and he and the Speaker and the White House have many different levers of power to use to ram this through if they are willing to use them, so as I have believed all along, I still think something will pass. The question, though, is which factions do the best job of hanging together and negotiating most smartly, and which choices do the key power players make.

Reconciliation is still an option, but even progressives like Harkin and Rockefeller don't want to go there unless they absolutely have to because of the mess it would make of the bill, and the hoops that would have to be jumped through. If both Senate conservatives and House progressives remain dug in, though, dividing these bills into two pieces, the budget-related items (including the public option) and everything else, is still the way that Reid might be forced to go. Since that is truly a last resort, he will continue to find the sweet spot that both sides can live with. And if all else fails, he can always just keep the bill on the floor for debate as long as the holdout Democrats want to debate it. Given that the polling numbers I have seen even in conservative states show that voters overwhelmingly want a debate and final vote allowed, that would put those Democrats in a very uncomfortable spot.

I wrote several months ago that ultimately the fate of this bill would come down to who blinks first, House progressives or Senate conservatives. One of them will win the majority of what they want on policy, and one of them will be given a fig leaf that allows them to say I forced a compromise. If it is House progressives who blink, or who let themselves be picked off one by one, not only would the final bill be far worse, I think it will be a political disaster for the Democratic party: bitter division, a disaffected base going into 2010, Republicans attacking full scale with no progressives to raise support and push back. Progressives have already compromised almost to the breaking point, and it is time for the conservatives in the party to do the same.

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