So What Happened Today?

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October 27, 2009 3:53 p.m.

We’re getting into the thick of battle over health care reform, with a flurry of new developments and statements coming each day. So today, and perhaps other days going forward, I want to step back and try to take stock of what happened and where we are.

The big news today was that a series of moderate and conservative Democrats stepped forward with statements ranging from skepticism of Reid’s bill to more or less open threats to filibuster it. The furthest out there was Joe Lieberman, who seemed to suggest that he’d allow some debate on the bill but later join a Republican filibuster to prevent the bill from actually coming to a vote so long as it remained in its current form. He hinted that remaining in its current form meant preserving the public option. Sens. Lincoln (D-AR) and Bayh (D-IN) also hinted that they weren’t necessarily on board but were more noncommittal about just how they’d vote.In general, I don’t think any of these developments should surprise us terribly and I don’t think they much change where things stood after Sen. Reid made his announcement yesterday afternoon. The senate leadership has been pretty clear that they don’t have firm commitments from all 60 members of the Democratic caucus, at least nothing public. But they believe that they’ll be able to get them or — depending on how you want to look at it — that they’ll make a calculated gamble that they will and that the best tactical approach is to frame the senate debate around a bill that starts with a public option in it. Putting the public option in the bill that starts the debate has important psychological and procedural implications.

If you’re wondering why the White House initially pushed back against Reid’s plan to go this route, this is why: without Snowe, Reid et al. have to run the table, get every last member of the Democratic caucus to vote for cloture. And thus they’re literally hostage to the electoral anxiety, showboating or mere nonsense of every last one of them. Not just Lieberman, but Lincoln, Bayh, Landrieu, Nelson and others. Any of them can knock the train off the tracks.

Nor is it just arithmetic. Snowe wasn’t just one more vote. As a Republican, having her on board would have given several of the key conservative Democrats more sense of cover. Ezra Klein says he’s not particularly worried by Lieberman’s threats. And he makes a good argument. But for me it’s less worried or not worried as that it’s just entirely expected.

And expect the rest of the conservative Democrats to hold out until pretty much the last minute too because it’s in their interests to do so, both to maximize their leverage and to wait as long as possible to commit themselves, getting as good a sense as they can of which way the political winds are blowing. This was a tightrope walk from the start. But I don’t think the rope any wobblier today than it was yesterday.

(ed.note: One last note. Most of you know this. But it’s worth repeating. You can’t understand this process or debate without keeping it first and foremost in your mind that there are two votes. The vote on the bill itself requires only fifty votes. But you need sixty votes to bring the bill up for a vote. And a few other things. But that’s the key one. It’s almost inconceivable that the bill will get sixty votes. The real question is going to be whether are handful of conservative Democrats are going to be willing to vote to allow an up or down vote and then vote against the bill itself. And Republicans are going to be working really hard to close off that possibility.)

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