18 August 2009

Whip Count

There was a lot of noise over the weekend about whether or not the Public Plan was "dead."  The fuel for this was the comments made by Obama and Sebelius which downplayed the public option as only one facet of reform, but the spark seems to have come from Conservadem Kent Conrad, who keeps insisting to anybody who will listen that the public plan "doesn't have the votes" to pass the Senate.

As an aside, it really annoys me that Conrad says this over and over to journalists, yet none of them ever ask him "Will you personally join a filibuster of health reform if it contains a public plan?"  This way Conrad gets to pretend he's just counting the votes, when really this sounds like an implied threat that he would filibuster if his demands aren't met.  But anyways.

The sad truth is that I think he's right, but maybe not for the reason he implies.  I suspect -- it's so hard to say -- that if the Senate ultimately has to vote on a bill with the public option, there will not be any democrats willing to filibuster a democratic President's signature policy issue.  This assumes that we can force them to take a firm stance on an extant, final bill.  The way we get there is that the Senate passes a bill with a weak public option or co-ops, the House passes a stronger public option, and the conference committee returns a bill to both chambers with some sort of public option.  At this stage the bill can be filibustered, or they can vote "nay," but it cannot be amended.

So all the Democrats need to do is enforce party unity for the final cloture vote -- a tall order but not impossible -- ram the bill through with 60 democratic votes and we win, right?

Unfortunately not.   I hate to say this -- I really hate to say this -- but there's a strong chance that the Dems may only have 59 votes.  Teddy Kennedy is gravely ill.  So ill that he was unable to attend the funeral of his sister.  He has not been seen in public for some months.  Will he be able to come back to DC for one final vote in the Senate?  What a scene that would be!  59-40, Kennedy wheels in to thunderous applause and raises his hand and whispers "Aye," propelling his career's quest for universal health care to victory!  It would be a made for Hollywood moment.  We can hope, but it's sounding increasingly farfetched.

Without Kennedy, the situation changes dramatically.  In order to achieve cloture on the final bill, you need party unity plus a republican, which is a very different matter.  Snowe or Collins are possibilities, but would they be willing to break party ranks on such a high-profile matter?  I don't know.  Unless a deal can be struck behind the scenes for their support, it would be a bold step to bring a bill with a public option out of conference committee.

With so much we don't know, and so much time to go, there's little point in counting the votes just yet.  But from what we do know, I have to say that the odds of a public plan being in the final product get longer every day.

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