Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Baucus plan may fail in committee; reconciliation more likely

The last Republican who was working with Max Baucus on his vain attempt at producing a bipartisan bill in his Senate Finance committee, Olympia Snowe of Maine, has apparently given up on supporting Baucus' plan.

As I pointed out the other day, the Baucus plan is a bad one, featuring mandates that would drive up the cost of health care for poor people (and not enough offsetting tax credits, even for those who could afford to pay insurance premiums upfront in exchange for a tax credit next year.)

Snowe cited that objection (making her more reasonable on that point than Max Baucus) and also how the plan to tax expensive health plans would probably cost many of her constituents in Maine where insurance is already among the most expensive in the nation.

The Baucus plan also has no government option, which caused one of the committee's liberals, Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) to say he won't support it. If the rest of the liberal Democrats on the committee follow Rockefeller's lead then Baucus may suffer the embarrassment of having delayed work on health care reform for months while chasing a compromise only to see it fail in his own committee, done in by a coalition of Republicans and liberal Democrats.

The truth is that Baucus' vision of a bipartisan bill was an illusion from the beginning. That became clear during the recess, when the other two Republicans that Baucus had been negotiating with, Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Mike Enzi (R-WY) both made it clear that they were against reform, including the bill that Baucus was supposedly working with them on. In contrast to Grassley and Enzi, who I believe simply strung things out as part of a GOP grand strategy to delay, deflate and defeat any significant health care reform bill (which we know very well they've been angling for all along, as Jim DeMint made clear a couple of months ago,) I think that Snowe was probably sincere, but she can't support the Baucus bill for the same reason I don't support it. If you're going to force people to buy health insurance then you have to help people who can't afford it pay for it up front, period.

What this does mean is that whatever goes to the floor of the Senate will probably much more resemble the bill that came out of the Health, Education and Labor Committee several weeks ago. That bill does include a Government option.

Because it does a handful of Democrats (Baucus, Kent Conrad, the two Nelsons, Evan Bayh, Mary Landreau and possibly independent Joe Lieberman) have expressed some doubts about whether they will support such a bill. Because the death of Ted Kennedy leaves Democrats with one less vote than needed to break a filibuster even if they do get all their members to sign on to something, it seems likely that Harry Reid will resort to reconciliation. Reconciliation is a parliamentary tactic that will mean that only 51 Senators will be needed to pass a bill, and a clause in a bill passed earlier this year gives Reid the option to use it after October 15 to pass a health reform bill. Republicans did the same thing in 2001 in order to push through the Bush tax cuts without having to break a filibuster.

And really, there is no reason anymore not to use reconciliation. GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell says it would amount to a 'declaration of war,' and that the Senate GOP would do everything they could to block health care and the rest of the Obama agenda. And if McConnell and his caucus had done anything less than that since the President has taken office that threat might have to be taken seriously. But whether it is declared or not, McConnell and the rest of the Republicans in Congress have already been marching in lockstep against the Obama agenda, they have already bottled up virtually all of Obama's judicial appointments and many other appointments and they have already signaled their intent do everything they can to delay, disrupt and obstruct the President's agenda. Health care reform was supposed to be 'Waterloo,' remember? So the Republicans have already been fighting a scorched earth, take no prisoners kind of war against the Democratic agenda. So WHY NOT use reconciliation? Max Baucus is learning the hard way that there can be no compromise with this crew, so if he's smart he'll realize that the only way forward is to reconnect with his fellow Democrats.

If nothing else though, the apparent failure of the Baucus attempt should make it clear to everyone that any appeal to bipartisanship is folly, and it will take a long time to revive it. Four committees (three in the house, one in the Senate) got a bill out of committee before the August recess with party line Democratic votes. In contrast to that in the Finance Committee, the Democratic leadership (Baucus and Conrad) led a serious attempt at bipartisanship, and it's taken much longer and now they may not even get any bill out at all.

Just write that down and pull it out next time some Republican complains about 'cramming something down their throats.' Because using the muscle of the majority to cram stuff down the GOP's throat is about the only thing that works anymore.

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