Talk about fits and starts.
A year ago Democrats committed to passing comprehensive health care legislation; six months ago, it became clear that their project wouldn’t go smoothly; one month ago it was full speed ahead; and a week and a half ago it all fell apart.
Health care reform is now on life support. To mix metaphors, it’s on life support and the back burner at the same time. How the Democrats’ signature agenda item went from a foregone conclusion to a prospect in peril is a tale of missteps and bad luck. No single player or event brought us to where we are today. But if any of the below episodes had gone…more smoothly, this might’ve been a done deal.
You know how the saying goes: Success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan. And you can be sure that if health care reform fails, the people below will make like John Edwards–quick-like.1. Let’s Do This The Hard Way…Just For Fun
It was a move that baffled and outraged reformers and Democratic members of Congress: Back in the early days of summer, while the House and the Senate Health Committee adhered to a standard legislative framework for drafting a reform bill, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) went in a completely different direction. Convinced, against all evidence, that the GOP would play nice on major social policy, Baucus decided to huddle with a motley crue of Democrats and Republicans, culled from his committee. It started in June as the “coalition of the willing”–Baucus, along with Sens. Kent Conrad (D-ND), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Mike Enzi (R-WY), and Orrin Hatch (R-UT)–but Hatch soon bolted, leaving the Gang of Six. Their meetings dragged on through the August health care flame wars into September, ultimately yielding…nothing. Baucus introduced a bill on his own, with the aim of winning over Snowe, and put it through the normal committee process. It wasn’t approved until October 13.
2. Rumblings In Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) died on August 25, and because of his illness, he could not play a major role in the health care debate. The impact he might have had can’t be known, but his passing ultimately deprived Dems of a 60th vote. At the time of his death, Massachusetts law required the seat to be filled by special election after 145-160 days. But at his request, the state government changed the law to allow the governor to appoint an interim senator to fill the vacancy. That change allowed Sen. Paul Kirk (D-MA) to cast the 60th vote for health care to get it through the Senate the first time. But it set the stage for the blow that put Kennedy’s own lifetime cause into a coma.
3. Math Math Math
Three words Democrats are tired of hearing at this point: Congressional Budget Office. At about a zillion different stages in the legislative process, Democrats had to wait for the CBO to “score” the cost and budgetary impact of the reform proposals on the table. But if Democrats could go back to 2009 to get some of that time back, they’d probably nix a four week back-and-forth between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and CBO-chief Doug Elmendorf, which dragged a process that was supposed to be over in August, then October, into November.
4. Snake, Meet Tail
There’s no getting around it. As SEIU President Andy Stern said recently, Senate Democrats “had a chance, a gift, from the American people–60 votes, so they could, for the first time in their life, debate any single issue they chose to debate. And they squandered it.” With Republicans out of the equation, Democrats needed to stand united–and they didn’t. On October 26, after canvasing his caucus, Reid declared that he would include a public option in his health care bill. The next day, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) announced his intent to filibuster. Reid unveiled his bill on November 18, and managed to get it on to the floor. But he couldn’t get it off the floor–passed–until he rounded up 60. For weeks, liberals and Democrats huddled to find common ground on the public option. At the last possible moment, after they thought they’d come to an agreement, Lieberman rose again: No public option; no compromise; either it goes, or I go. He won.
5. It’s The Republicans!!
Thusfar, this has largely been a story about Senate Democrats. With 60 votes, why didn’t they charge ahead? But the Senate is the Senate, and even a 40 vote minority can cause pointless delay. And delay they did. Republicans filibustered the move to debate the health care bill (30 hours); and through separate filibusters, delayed final passage of the Senate bill–December 24, 2009–by about a week.
6. No! It’s The Democrats!!
But as soon as the bill passed, Democrats skipped town. For weeks. Reid went to Nevada–“I’m just going to sit back and watch my rabbits eat my cactus”–and other key players took time off. Exhaustion had clearly set in. But they needed those weeks.
Why did they need those weeks? Because they’d soon lose a Senate seat. Kennedy’s seat. The Democrats had planned to use the Senate bill as a baseline–send it over to the House for some changes, then back to the Senate for (truly) final passage. Another 60 vote hurdle. But after running a lethargic, gaffe-ridden campaign, Democrat Martha Coakley lost to surging challenger Scott Brown, who ran on a vow to be the 41st vote against health care. Suddenly Democrats needed a Plan B.
Democrats are settling on a Plan B. Whether it will work or not remains to be seen. But they came to the last-ditch strategy in the heat of a panic. It wasn’t a pre-cooked contingency. Because Democrats never thought they’d need one. They took it for granted. And as a result, as Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) said, health care reform is on life support.