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What To Make Of Edwards's Health Care Threat?

There's been some back and forth today about John Edwards's threat to cut off health care for members of Congress if they don't pass universal health care by July of 2009. The Clinton campaign dismisses the ultimatum, underscored in a new Edwards ad, as a gimmick--and an unconstitutional one at that. The argument is that Edwards's ultimatum would require legislation. And since the 27th amendment demands that a congressional election be held in between proposing legislation that affects congressional compensation and adopting it, the earliest the measure could pass the House would be late 2010/early 2011. That effectively makes Edwards's threat moot.

The Edwards campaign argues that the constitutional question is vague--they point to a reading of the 27th amendment by Chicago law professor (and TNR contributor) Cass Sunstein that might allow the legislation to be approved immediately. More importantly, on the broader question of whether or not this is a gimmick, they implicitly concede that it is. My sense is the Edwards people would simply add that it's not just a campaign gimmick but a gimmick Edwards could use as president to enact health care reform. It is, after all, hard to imagine a president taking a political hit--and members of Congress benefiting--from a constitutional fight over his strategy for passing universal health care.

Bottom line: The Clinton campaign is right that to say Congress probably won't be losing its health care coverage if it doesn't listen to President Edwards. If anyone is voting for Edwards on that expectation, they're being misled. On the other hand, it's not so hard to imagine President Edwards ginning up this fight to galvanize support for his health care plan. If that's what voters think they're getting, then it hardly seems over the line.

--Noam Scheiber