Health Care Stakes Heat Up–Kennedy, Baucus Meet With Obama

Last night, with the typical eloquence of a 75 year old man using Twitter, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee wrote, “The prez is meetin w Finance and Help Demo bc doesn’t appear they on same page Finance working biparty HELP more partisan. Where Prez land?”

Translated roughly from the Twitterese, that means that President Obama met with Democrats from both the Finance Committee and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee because they disagree about the direction health reform should take. Unsurprisingly, all signs indicate that the more liberal HELP Committee–chaired by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA)–will soon introduce a fairly dramatic reform proposal, with a truly robust public insurance option. Soon thereafter, though, the Finance Committee will unveil a rather less progressive proposal of its own with the issue of the public option–how robust it will be, or whether it will be included at all–still unsettled.

Grassley’s spinning this as a rift between partisans and centrists within the Democratic party, and in a way that rift really exists. But the political play here is somewhat more complicated.Keep in mind that Democrats have an ace up their sleeve in form of the reconciliation process. Nobody expects the Senate to sign on for a HELP-style bill, but if Republicans don’t get on board with something (like, say, the Finance bill) the Democrats can pass the HELP legislation via the budget process.

Meanwhile, if Republicans in the Senate do play along, the bills can be merged into a single piece of legislation, that looks, for the most part like the Finance Committee’s proposal. Then the House (where Henry Waxman’s Energy and Commerce Committee takes the lead) can pass something along the lines of the Kennedy bill, and the final reform bill will be negotiated in conference committee.

That syncs with the political direction Democratic party leaders have been saying the reform process will take for some time. There’s virtual unanimity among Democratic leaders on the Hill that the reconciliation process should be both a bargaining chip, and a tool of last resort, but that ideally a bill will pass through regular order. That’s why it makes sense for the Senate to advance two very different bills.

We’ll try to get you more details on yesterday’s meeting, but keep this bigger political picture in mind as the legislative process moves forward.