For months, various parties have been calling on the President to clarify exactly what he was for and, following the loss of a 60-vote majority in the Senate, how he thought that could be accomplished. Starting with the run-up to the Feb. 25 summit, President Obama did just that, laying out a package of amendments to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed by the Senate and calling last Wednesday for an up-or-down vote on health care within the next few weeks.

The President’s proposal would improve on the Senate bill by toughening oversight of the insurance industry, improving benefits and affordability provisions and closing the Medicare part D doughnut hole. He also added several Republican ideas from the summit such as new proposals to reduce payment errors in Medicare and Medicaid.

In a surprise to many, the RNC called on Groucho Marx to deliver their response.

OK, just kidding. What was striking about the real response from Congressional Republicans was the way they resorted to invective. Away from the Blair House setting—where they could be directly challenged for “having their own facts”—they reverted to much harsher language than they used in the largely civil exchange during the summit. “Job-killing“(Independent analysts say health reform will promote job growth), “budget-busting” (the CBO says that reform will reduce the budget deficit by about $100 billion over 10 years and by $1 trillion over 20 years) “government takeover” (people get a choice of private insurance plans) were some of the greatest hits from the last week in sound bytes. Oh, and of course the ubiquitous “jam” that Jon Stewart spoofed last week (video at 2:20).

Despite the fact that the Senate bill that is remarkably similar to the one that Republican moderates were advancing in the 1990s, today’s Republicans have made it clear (through this RNC fundraising presentation, among other things ) that polarization and fear-mongering are central to their campaign strategy. No wonder no bipartisan health care compromise has been possible.

This fact-resistant extremism could be a factor that helps clear the way for final passage. Another other is a series of highly visible double-digit premium increases that are being proposed across the country, especially in the non-group market. The lack of any insurer accountability has been a stark and timely reminder of the need for change. Here to there: the New new timetable Deadlines have come and gone more than once while the health reform debate has dragged on. We now have another schedule for action, albeit a tentative one. The administration is hoping to have a reform vote in the House by March 18, just 11 days from now, and hopes that Senate action will begin prior to the spring Congressional recess, which starts March 29. The first vote is the hardest Although the challenges of using budget reconciliation have drawn the most attention from commentators, the hardest step in the process from here on out is the first vote in the House. Although subsequent action will address many of the problems House members have with the Senate bill, the path forward requires the House to vote first for the Senate bill as-is and then vote to fix it—something that many House members have expressed reluctance to do.

Abortion contortion Probably the House leadership’s biggest stumbling block to assembling a majority is dealing with the abortion issue. In the initial debate in the House, Democrats who opposed choice were joined by Republicans to put in very restrictive language, authored by Congressman Bart Stupak, that many feel will eliminate abortion coverage within the Exchange and may undermine private coverage for abortions in employer-based plans.

According to an analysis by Faith in Public Life,  the language in the Senate already precludes federal funding of abortion.

However, Congressman Stupak has argued that the Senate language is not strong enough, and has declared his intention to vote against the Senate bill, claiming that about 10 other Democrats will join him. Given the very narrow margin of victory in the House, every Democrat beyond Stupak who switches from yes to no because they don’t like the Senate abortion language (or for any other reason) must be offset by switching the vote of someone who voted no the first time to yes the second time. Facts not worth a hill of beans? Although it seems his vote is pretty fact-resistant, it appears that Congressman Stupak is misreading the Senate language.2352670827_dc9563c0c3_m

The Senate bill, as best as I can tell, does not allow federal funding of abortions—despite Rep. Stupak’s insistence that it does. And we don’t have to take either Speaker Pelosi’s or the pro-choice community’s word for it. If the Senate allowed federal funding of abortion, then presumably the matter could be addressed in an amendment that would pass through budget reconciliation—an amendment Rep. Stupak would undoubtedly bring.

But there is no such amendment on the table. Why? Because amendments through budget reconciliation must impact the budget, and there is no budgetary implication in the difference between the Nelson and Stupak abortion language. Although there is no public document available, this appears to be the view of CBO.

Remember: the CBO is neither pro nor anti-choice in this debate. They are simply the bean counters. And if they say there are no beans on the table to count that should count for something–if not to Congressman Stupak, then at least to other Congress members who oppose abortion rights as a matter of conscience or religious conviction.

Smooth sailing? Once a bill does clear the House, the road to reform becomes smoother (not quite seat-belt sign off, but smoother). Although Republicans have threatened to delay the vote in the Senate by filing endless amendments and launching parliamentary challenges, this is as much a psychological game as anything else.

Senate Republicans are trying convince some members on the House side not to take that first vote, playing on the fears of House members who worry that the improvements they’ve agreed to won’t happen and the House will be stuck with the unamended Senate bill. But once the House does vote, the dynamics change. Then the choice is no longer health reform, yes or no, it is health reform as passed by the Senate or health reform with the proposed amendments.

By opposing the amendments to improve the Senate bill, Senate Republicans risk exposing themselves as flip-floppers, voting for policies they previously opposed (such as the special Medicaid funding for Nebraska, and the special excise tax provisions that apply to union-negotiated health benefits) in an attempt to score political points. [I talked about this here last week.]

–Michael Miller, director of strategic policy

photo credit: base10 on flickr