Bill Moyers hosted an interesting conversation the other day among Robert Kuttner, Matt Taibbi, and himself about health care reform, the performance of the Administration to this point, and the relations of progressives with the President. The conversation focused in part on how Taibbi and Kuttner would vote on the Senate’s pending legislation, if it were up to them. Even though they both agreed very closely on the shortcomings of the Senate’s bill thus far, and also on how far from what’s needed this bill is, they disagreed about what should be done. Matt would vote against the bill, thinks that President Obama, would learn from the defeat, and believes that it ought to be killed; and Bob thinks that progressives ought to hold their noses and vote for it, because the political damage the Administration would suffer if it were defeated is so great, that the Democrats and the President would both be set up for defeat in the next elections, and any opportunity for the President to change direction, and for progressive legislation to succeed in the future, would be gone for many years. So, in short, Bob would support this legislation out of fear of the consequences for the larger political context in which progressive efforts to transform the political system are embedded.
Kuttner’s position is understandable, and it may even reflect the argument that explains why progressive Senators like Bernie Sanders, Sherrod Brown, Russ Feingold, Pat Leahy, Al Franken, and others, won’t just refuse to vote for this terrible bill until it’s fixed. Nevertheless, I think it’s far too glib, likely to be wrong, and the consequences of it so dire for both the public and the Democrats, if the bill is passed, that both Kuttner and Progressive Democratic Senators need to reconsider their position before it’s too late. They are marching in lockstep over the cliff, and they need to stop right now.
Those who want to vote for this bill out of fear of the consequences for Obama and the Democrats, think that if the bill is killed, health care reform will not be taken up by the Administration again, and that the defeat sustained will be played up by the Republicans, the tea-baggers, and the Media in such a way that Obama won’t be able to get anything else of consequence through before the elections of 2010, and that the likely Republican victory will then, essentially, make him an impotent lame duck President for the rest of his term. They fear progressivism will be discredited with his defeat, and that the progressive movement will lose its chance for transforming our failing civilization, and that perhaps, even, that the chance for health care reform will be gone for another 15 years or longer.
This story may sound good to some, but it is just one of many narratives about the unfolding of the political future, and not a very plausible one at that. Does Bob Kuttner really think that if progressive Senators were to refuse to vote for this bill, that the Administration would respond by doing nothing, by letting the Republican narrative of “Obama fail” go forward? Does he really think that “congresscritters” will fail to notice the reaction from their districts to their failing to do something about health care reform? I don’t think so. I think Obama and the other Democrats must and will respond to any such failure, actively, and very, very soon. They have no choice. They know very well that they can’t simply accept a failure to pass a health care reform bill, after declaring it a major priority of the Administration, and, if progressive Senators just vote to kill this bill, will immediately proceed to another strategy .
The first thing they will do is to let everyone know that health care reform is not over, and that they have not been defeated. Knowing that they cannot find a bill that will be supported by all 60 Democrats, they will move back to the House and use the reconciliation process to pass some elements of reform that won’t be excluded by the Byrd Rule. They will plan to pass other elements of reform as separate bills, or as riders to appropriation bills that people will feel uncomfortable voting against.
Since reconciliation requires only 50 plus 1 votes, the Leadership can now afford to lose up to 10 Senators from either the progressive or corporate sides of the Democratic Party, but no more. There’s now no need, however, to appease Lieberman, Nelson, Lincoln, Landrieu, Baucus, Pryor, Bayh, Conrad, Begich, or Carper. But they will need to hold Hagan, McCaskill, Warner, Specter, Bingaman, and Johnson, if they want to try for a more progressive bill.
If, on the other hand, they want to try to pass a bill like the kind of stinker they’ve been pushing lately, they won’t be able to blame the bill on having to compromise with the blue dogs anymore, and they will have to hold all but 10 progressive Senators, angry over all the pubic misrepresentations by the Administration about the sort of bill it wants, to make it work, out of the following group: Bernie Sanders, Sherrod Brown, Russ Feingold, Pat Leahy, Al Franken, Sheldon Whitehouse, Tom Harkin, Ron Wyden, Patty Murray, Dick Durbin, Barbra Boxer, Byron Dorgan, Barbara Mikulski, Ben Cardin, Jay Rockefeller, Chuck Schumer, Roland Burris, and Paul Kirk. They may also have trouble with a few more Senators including: Amy Klobuchar, Maria Cantwell, Carl Levin, Debbie Stabenow, Michael Bennett, Jon Tester, John Kerry, and Jack Reed, if they want to continue moving along the stinker route. There are 26 Senators there, many of whom will, I think, in a reconciliation scenario, insist that a public option of some kind, along with a Medicare option for those over 55, Medicaid expansion, without any use of Stupak/Nelson language, and closing of the doughnut hole for Medicare recipients, all be passed before any bills dealing with non-reconciliation items, insurance company regulations or the insurance exchange be considered.
Since there are 26 of these Senators, I think it will be much harder for the Administration to pay off 16 of them to get a stinker passed, than it will be for it to pay off five corporatist Senators to get them to pass a more progressive bill. So, under reconciliation, I think the likelihood of a more progressive bill, is much greater than the likelihood of the kind of bill being considered now. But how can we get to reconciliation in this health care reform process, when the Leadership is opposed to using it?
There is only one way. The progressives must not vote for this bill. They must not let Obama and Rahm define reality for them any longer. Instead they must expose Obama to their reality. That reality is that they can block this bill under the regular order if they want to. That reality can be that they have blocked this terrible bill, and that the Leadership now has a choice between letting health care reform go, or going to reconciliation, where they again have a choice of pursuing the kind of giveaway to insurance companies they’re supporting now, even though it’s a very heavy lift to pass it, or, alternatively, pursuing the easier and more realistic course of formulating a more progressive bill that can more easily pass the Senate (since they can afford to lose up to 10 blue dogs or conservadems and still pass it). Which way do you think the leadership will go? Which way do you think the President will go? I think it will be toward reconciliation, and then toward a more progressive bill, since that would then be their only realistic option for getting a bill passed before the elections of 2010.
If the progressives were willing to vote “no” and force reconciliation on health care reform, it would not only be important for getting a better deal on a health care reform bill. It would, in addition, teach Obama, Rahm, and the blue dogs that progressive support could not be taken for granted for any of the Administration’s initiatives. No longer, would Nancy Pelosi and Rahm be amused in public (or in private, for that matter) at questions about whether the Leadership could count on progressive support, come what may. Instead such questions would have to be answered in the context of serious attempts to bring progressives along in such initiatives, by buying their support, with certain guarantees about requirements that the President could not compromise in making deals.
Also, the Leadership would know that if it didn’t beat up on the blue dogs from time-to-time, it would have no hope of getting 60 votes to pass anything. Since there certainly would be other issues, apart from health care reform, in which the common ground between progressives and blue dogs would be too small to get 60 votes, the Administration would also know that its 60-vote frame would have to end, and that it would have to let everyone know that it would be willing to do what is necessary to get its program passed, including both reconciliation, or perhaps even the “nuclear option,” if the Republicans and the blue dogs continued to use the filibuster to block legislation. If progressives could begin the Administration’s journey down this path by saying “no” to the Senate’s health care ‘reform” bill, it would be giving it a great opportunity to learn from its previous mistakes and also to re-learn that very old lesson, that in a democracy, the majority is supposed to rule.