After a stormy voyage of more than a year, this Monday morning finds the good ship health reform within sight of a final vote. The tentative timetable has a CBO score out today or tomorrow, Rules Committee action on Wednesday and a vote before the end of the week.

Our understanding is that House leaders are leaning toward a single vote on the Obama fixes that will contain a clause passing the Senate bill passed upon passage of the amendments. That way, House members who are unhappy with the Senate bill will never actually have to vote on it. We do not expect House leadership to wait for all the votes to be locked down before going to the floor, but instead think they will schedule the vote once they are close and try to round up the last few yeses as the debate and vote are happening.

Deconstructing the Opposition Strategy: Be Very Afraid

The Republicans’ strategy at this point boils down to trying to scare the House Democrats into voting no. Their two main lines of attack are:

  1. The Senate won’t pass the fix-it bill, leaving the House stuck with the Senate bill.
  2. It will mean electoral trouble for Democrats in the fall.
Let’s break down each argument:

The first argument has shifted in recent weeks. Originally, the Republicans tried to play on the institutional distrust between House and Senate, suggesting that if House members “took the plunge,” Senate Democrats would leave them high and dry. But as more and more Senate Democrats committed to voting yes on a package of amendments (at least the necessary 50 have done so) the power of this scare tactic has waned, and so Republicans now threaten instead to gum up the works, making passage as hard as possible.

As we observed before, the bill that comes to the Senate will be small and will contain things that are easy to support—e.g. closing the Medicare doughnut hole, increasing federal funding for Medicaid, taking out special deals. Though Republicans certainly might play obstruction games, such parliamentary delay tactics may not play out the way they hope—think of the way Gingrich shutting down government in the 90s backfired with the public.

The second line of attack is that if Congressional Democrats vote yes, it will cost them their jobs. Republicans recently put out a poll from districts of swing members purporting to show that vote for reform would hurt their electoral chances. Whether a coordinated part of the strategy or on their own initiative, two former Democratic pollsters made the same argument in a Washington Post op-ed.

What makes the piece fishy is that a) the only polling they cite is from Rassmussen, a polling company with a well-known “house effect” in favor of conservatives and Republicans  and b) they conclude that what the Democrats should do is essentially pass the House Republican health care proposal (you can compare the GOP proposal to Obama’s plan here).

A more fair reading of the polling:

  • People want major change
  • The main elements of the reform bill are popular, and some are very popular.
  • People don’t know what’s in the bill. As Jon Stewart pointed out (watch at 4:05), there have been not a few misinformation campaigns to take the credit there. But once they learn what’s actually in the bill, they like it a whole lot better.
As the President has become more active in the debate and pushed out a clearer message about what reform does—eliminate insurance company abuses, provide people with security of never losing their coverage, provide tax credits to small business to help them afford insurance—public support has trended up.

Not to say that there aren’t some fundamental glitches in public opinion. Voters think a bipartisan bill is important, and that Democrats should keep working with Republicans until they get it. What the media have failed to convey is that

  1. the bill is supported by Republicans, including governors, former Senate leaders and former administration officials and
  2. the bill is essentially what Republican Senators proposed as an alternative to the Clinton plan in the 90s.
Finally, what should be clear after the Blair House summit is that there is no hope of getting any kind of bipartisan agreement, short of giving up and passing the Republican plan. It would be much more meaningful if pollsters confined their questions to the real choices that are available instead of setting up straw men.

Polls aside, there’s no doubt Democrats are sailing into a stiff headwind right now. The President’s party usually loses seats in the midterm, and this year the persistently high unemployment is fueling voter discontent. Discontent is aimed at incumbents generally, but with a large number of House seats to defend in historically Republican-voting districts, and with incumbent Senate Democrats from conservative states like North Dakota and Indiana retiring, the GOP could see substantial pick-ups. Add in the expected flood of corporate cash into the elections courtesy of the Supreme Court and it is shaping up to be a tough year for Democrats, indeed.

But the fundamental political question persists: are Democrats helped or hurt by failure to pass health reform? They are already on the hook for voting yes and attack ads are already being produced. Flip-flopping is famously unpopular in politics and is unlikely to win a pass from reform opponents in the election. Passing reform gives House Democrats a concrete historic accomplishment with which to fight back.

It don’t come easy: Math in the House In November, the House health care reform bill passed with  220 votes. Currently with vacancies, 216 are needed to win.  If everyone who voted yes last time votes yes again, reform passes. But House leaders can’t count on every yes vote remaining in place, so every yes-to-no vote must be offset by finding a no-to-yes.

Here are three places where votes are at risk:

Abortion The number of Democrats willing to ‘vote off’ because of abortion seems to be declining.  A recent letter from pro-life clerics and theologians looked at the abortion provisions in the Senate bill, chapter and verse, and concludes that the bill does not provide federal funding for abortion.  Several members who voted for the Stupak amendment have publicly reached the same conclusion. And although Stupak claimed that he has about 12 members who will stick with him in voting off, his camp seems to be shrinking as the reality that the Senate bill does not allow federal funds for abortion has begun to sink in. Most analysts put the total number of no votes on account of abortion at five or six.

Immigration The Senate bill bars undocumented immigrants from purchasing health insurance through the new insurance Exchanges even if they use their own money. It also fails to provide equal coverage to legal immigrants, continuing a ban on federal matching funds for state Medicaid coverage and offering instead less comprehensive and more costly coverage in the Exchange. As a result, a number of lawmakers in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have said that they were leaning toward a no vote.  The issue is further complicated by the fact that the provision relating to undocumented individuals cannot be addressed via budget reconciliation.

But a Medicaid provision that gives states at least the option to cover legal immigrants could be addressed in reconciliation.  While most states would probably not take up the option, the measure could at least provide fiscal relief and perhaps better coverage in those states who now cover legal immigrants with 100 percent of state dollars.

How possible is this? Remember that in the initial House vote in November, there was an 11th hour change on abortion. It’s still possible that House leaders and the President will see the light on Medicaid for immigrants, especially if it is the only remaining obstacle to passage. However, even if this last-minute adjustment is made, the legislation does not go far enough in providing equal access to coverage for immigrants, which only underscores the importance of comprehensive immigration reform (check out this weekend’s march here).

The Scott Brown effect In the wake of the election of Republican Senator Scott Brown, the Massachusetts delegation has become visibly uneasy about reform. Despite compelling evidence that the Brown election did not turn on the candidates’ positions on health care,  some members of the normally solidly liberal Massachusetts delegation have indicated concern about moving forward, though not all have given the same reasons.  It’s hard to imagine that Massachusetts Democrats would actually sink national health care reform. But as the Brown election proved, nothing can be taken for granted—even in Massachusetts.

Coming soon

Stay tuned for updates this week as the CBO score becomes available and we get more clarity about the vote schedule.

-Michael Miller, director of strategic policy