Raw Deal: What Were Dems Thinking When They Let Neil Abercrombie Retire?

March 12, 2010 10:00 a.m.

It all comes down to votes now. Assuming total opposition on the part of the GOP, President Obama can only enact comprehensive health care reform if 216 Democrats vote for the legislation. That will require pleading, promises, and arm-twisting, and it will also mean Democrats can’t afford to lose any more yes votes between now and the end of next week.

But they already let one slip away.

Neil Abercrombie resigned at the end of February to pursue the governorship of Hawaii, and took with him an assured “yes” vote on health care reform.Contrast that to the closest Republican analog, Georgia gubernatorial hopeful Rep. Nathan Deal (R-GA). Deal announced his retirement shortly after Abercrombie did, but was pulled back in at the last moment, before his retirement took effect, so he could vote against the health care bill.

These decisions have substantial weight. In the House, a simple majority of members present and voting is required to pass legislation. On a partisan bill like health care, that means Democrats have the incentive to keep as many yes votes on hand as possible, and Republicans have the incentive to keep as many no votes on hand as possible. But whereas Abercrombie retired abruptly, Republicans managed to keep Deal around.

What were Democrats thinking?

If health care reform fails by a vote, there will be a lot of blame to go around, but the decision to allow Abercrombie to retire will get its fair share. And yet, leading Democrats treat Abercrombie’s retirement non-chalantly.

“I think Neil was determined to get moving on his gubernatorial race,” DCCC chairman Chris Van Hollen told me yesterday.

House Democratic Caucus Chair John Larson placed some blame on the Senate for dragging the health care fight on as long as it has, but he also says the decision was Abercrombie’s to make.

“The Senate could have acted a lot earlier,” Larson told me after a Dem caucus meeting today. “If there’s any quarterbacking done, it’s generally about the Senate.”

I pressed, asking whether leadership could’ve taken any steps to keep Abercrombie around until after the health care vote. “Once a person makes up their mind to do something, this is America, they’re free to do it.”

Easy come, easy go, right?

Well, Democrats did luck out (in a way) when Rep. Eric Massa (D-NY) resigned this week. His departure canceled out Abercrombie’s vote. But if that hadn’t happened, Democrats would have had to find yet another yes vote on health care–and if you hadn’t noticed, that’s proving to be a difficult task.

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