President Obama has for the most part given Congress a wide berth as it crafts a health care reform bill, popping up now and again to remind party leaders of the importance of the initiative, which he now describes as his highest legislative priority. But yesterday that all seemed to change.
First, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs suggested that Obama might ask the House or the Senate or both chambers to delay recess if either hasn’t passed its own reform bill. And later, at a meeting with congressional leaders, Obama turned up the temperature on Senate Finance chairman Max Baucus (D-MT), whose committee is now weeks behind schedule, saying he wants the committee to have a bill ready for mark up by the end of the week.
Clearly the White House is beginning to worry that the House and the Senate may leave for recess without voting on legislation. But why does that matter? For many reasons, actually, but a couple stand out more than others: First, a floor vote on health care is a big vote. Bigger than a vote on a health care conference report. It’s a vote that will likely become an issue in battleground districts during the 2010 congressional elections. And as a rule of thumb, when election season approaches, vulnerable members become more risk averse–less willing, in other words, to vote for controversial legislation.
But there’s another potential issue, too.If a lot of work remains to be done on health care after the August recess, Congress will find itself fast upon its deadline to pass a budget reconciliation bill. Democrats have suggested that they’d use the reconciliation process to pass health care reform if a bipartisan bill is unable to pass via normal legislative channels by mid-October–Obama’s current goal. The very possibility of going the reconciliation route–and thereby avoiding a filibuster–has served as a weak lever of sorts for congressional leaders–a call to health care reform fence-sitters and opponents to play along, or be shut out of the process altogether. But in reality this isn’t how Democrats–or anybody else on the Hill, really–wants health care to pass.
And yet, if Congress enters recess with weeks of work left to do, party leaders may have to make a call; and those who oppose passing health care through the reconciliation process–Republicans and some Democrats–might be trying to run out the clock–to call leadership’s bluff, or, at the very least, to touch off a game of legislative chicken. If that’s what it comes to, the political fight will be fascinating to watch. But it’s pretty clear that party leaders and a cautious White House would prefer not to have to make the call.