Finance Bill Passes With Snowe’s Support–So What Does That Mean For Reform?

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There’s no way around the fact that today’s Senate Finance Committee vote was a major milestone in the five-month long health care reform saga. That much is not in doubt. But in a way, the outcome had been largely pre-determined, and the public focus–from pressure groups and pundits and reporters–has already turned to the next stage in the process: starting tomorrow, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, working with Finance chair Max Baucus, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), White House officials, and a handful of other people will begin the arduous and crucial task of merging the Senate’s two competing bills.

That will likely be a crucial moment for the public option, and that means the story behind the story of the Finance bill’s passage is still evolving. We learned today, in a moment of great political theatrics, that Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) decided to support the Baucus bill. What we’ll learn in the days and weeks ahead is what that decision means for the substance of the bill going forward.

Here’s why it could have significant implications:Now that Snowe’s on board, conservative Democrats have greater cover (or believe they have greater cover) to vote with their party on a divisive issue. Good news for reformers, right? Not necessarily. Nobody really knows what will happen, but there’s at least one potential fear. Look out in the coming days (even hours) for centrist senators declaring or hinting that their continued support for reform hinges on Snowe’s continued support for reform. And it seems very likely that Snowe’s continued support for reform hinges on either a). no public option, or b). a public option affixed to a trigger mechanism, or c). a public option compromise that would allow states to opt-out, or opt-in to a public option. But no true public option, as reformers define it, let alone one that uses Medicare reimbursement rates.

That gives her significant leverage.

Weeks ago the conventional wisdom was that her best bet would have been to oppose the bill at the committee level–that by doing so, she’d ratchet up her bargaining power when the bills moved to the merging stage and then to the floor. Democrats were fairly pessimistic.

But that was when the Democrats were still reeling from the August/pre-August decline in reform’s popularity, and Snowe was the great hope to be the 60th vote for passage. Now, Democrats have 60 votes on their own. And so now, the greatest weapon in her arsenal may be the threat that, if leaders move the bill away from her redlines, she’ll stand up and say “thus far and no further,” scaring conservative Dems away in the process.

That’s one theory, anyhow. And for now, that’s pretty much all we really have to work with.

Mostly, though, Democrats today seem much more focused on and pleased with the fact that the bill can (finally) move forward than they are with the 42342 dimensional chess game that is the legislative process

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at brian@talkingpointsmemo.com
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