Will Concessions, And A Trim CBO Score, Appease Conservative Democrats On Health Care?

November 19, 2009 6:37 a.m.

Conservative Democrats couldn’t have asked for better top-line numbers from the CBO on Senate health care legislation. Low total cost, big long-term deficit reductions, millions insured, and a public option that insures perhaps one percent of the population. But is that enough to actually cool their heartburn?

Well, yes and no.

“Listen, anytime you add more to deficit reduction, you have to say that it’s a move in the right direction,” Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) told reporters yesterday. “So there’s no doubt…that clearly would be one [area of improvement]–but again you have to have a lot of faith and trust in the scoring system.”

Nelson cautioned that the CBO numbers released yesterday are preliminary, and subject to some uncertainty, but basically applauded the bill for being fiscally responsible.

But is that what’s really driving the moderates’ skepticism?Surely there are other issues, and one of them seems to be that, no matter how dramatically Democrats scale back their bill, Republicans will attack vulnerable members for offering even the most trivial level of support.

“I wanted to make it clear that [the vote on the motion to proceed] is, unlike some are suggesting, is not the vote…it’s a motion to enter into the debate and possible amendments and improvements of the legislation” Nelson told reporters yesterday. “The vote is the second cloture vote, and that is the cloture on a motion to cease debate, and I wanted that clear, because I’ve already begun to see people out there say, ‘oh no, no, if you vote [to take it up] you’ve voted for health care.”

The “people” he’s talking about are top Republicans, who last month threatened explicitly to accuse Democrats who voted simply to debate a bill as having voted for tax increases and all the rest.

“So our view is that cloture on the motion to proceed to the bill is a vote to endorse a half a trillion dollars in Medicare cuts, $400 billion in new taxes, and higher insurance — health insurance premiums for everyone else,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters last month.

Democrats hit back on that statement pretty hard: “We are glad that Senator McConnell has made clear his position on cloture votes,” said Rodell Mollineau, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “By his logic, Senate Republicans’ vote last week against proceeding to the defense bill means they don’t support our troops in a time of war.” But the writing was on the wall.

So are these conservative Democrats going to play nice? On the first procedural votes, it seems as if they are. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) said she’d make her decision on that score today. Several weeks down the line, though, these same Democrats will be health care kingmakers. If this decision’s taken such a toll on them, just wait for the next one.

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