As the health care bill goes to conference, whether through formal committee or informal negotiation, there's obviously a tension between a pretty decent House bill and a Senate one that's better than nothing, but contains some seriously problematic elements and is far worse than what's needed to really move forward. Senate negotiators will no doubt try to keep their version over that of the House by using the specter of Senators Lieberman and Nelson filibustering if the House holds firm on issues like the public option or paying for the bill by taxing the wealthy rather than those with decent health insurance. If they do, Lieberman and Nelson might indeed go with the Republican team and vote against cloture. But that's not guaranteed, despite all their bluster. And testing their willingness to sink the entire bill for regressive principles gives the Democrats a lot to gain.
At the last moment, Lieberman might just pull back his threat to support a Republican filibuster. He risks losing his committee. He adds more prime footage of his disloyalty to be used in Democratic ads in Democratic Connecticut when he runs in 2012. If we wants something on another issue from his Democratic colleagues, who still remain the majority, he's far less likely to get it. Nelson's a little harder in some ways since Nebraska leans Republican, but a populist primary challenge could take him down, and again if he wants something for Nebraska the chances of his getting it will become far slimmer. So far the two of them have backed the rest of the Democrats down at every turn, and have never really been tested on their threats. I'm not saying the leverage over them of the Senate leadership is infinite, but if there ever was a time to push for more and not just give Lieberman and Nelson veto power over the entire rest of the Democratic Senate and House, it's the final negotiating sessions on this bill.
So what happens if the conference comes back with a bill that's stronger, closer to the House version, and Lieberman and/or Nelson join a Republican filibuster. They immediately become branded as allies of Republican obstructionism not just for those inside the blogosphere, but for the general public in in way that's far more lasting than when they could claim they were simply negotiating. Their support of a filibuster would also take the heat off all the other Democrats who can then respond, "We fought as best we can for what we think America needs, but the Republicans blocked it, so we're going to pass what we can and then keep fighting for more." It also allows the Democrats to draw a clear line between the party that supports popular elements like a public option and a health bill based on progressive taxation, and the one that continues to block them--versus a party that wanted something better, but where every representative is tarred by the provisions demanded by a tiny handful of Senators.. By forcing Lieberman and possibly Nelson to defend regressive and unpopular positions, the Democrats might just begin regaining that populist mantle they've lost through this endless year of caving and compromising.
At that point, if Democratic Senators can't get it an improved bill past a Republican filibuster, the lines of who is fighting for what will be drawn far more clearly to the public than they are now. That's a good thing, not something to fear. And if a filibuster blocks an improved version, they have options besides saying "our way or the highway," because they can still fall back to the original Senate bill, or something close to it, and pass it having at least given something better a fight, and reminding those who voted for them that not all Democrats are as craven as the handful who've held this bill hostage. Even if they then have to settle for less, they can at least say, in a way that's presently far harder, that they tried to vote not only for what was right, but also for what most Americans want. In the process, they not only have a chance of getting a far better bill, but they might even help recover some of the support and enthusiasm that helped carry them to their present majority just over a year ago.
Paul Loeb is author of Soul of a Citizen, whose updated edition St Martin's Press will release April 5, and which HuffPost will be serializing. He's also the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. See www.paulloeb.org To receive Paul's articles directly email email@example.com with the subject line: subscribe paulloeb-articles You can sign up here for his HuffPo posts, including the upcoming Soul of a Citizen serializations.