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The Deal With The Blue Dogs

The big news on health reform is a deal that will allow the House Energy and Commerce Committee to pass legislation. As you may recall, nearly identical bills have already moved through two other House committees, Education and Labor along with Ways and Means. But it's gotten hung up in Energy and Commerce, where the Blue Dog Democrats have kicked up a fuss, protesting everything from the bill's size to the inclusion of a public insurance option.

Waxman has now pried away four Blue Dogs, enough--apparently--to get the bill through his committee. And he did so with what appear to be pretty small substantive concessions, like a slight reduction in subsidies and a modest reduction in the program's overall size. Most of the bill's core elements seem to be intact, including the public insurance option.

The big bone Waxman threw to the Blue Dogs--thank you very much, I'm here all week folks--was time. The Blue Dogs didn't want a full floor vote on reform until after the August recess, so Waxman got assurances from leadership that the vote will wait. This is a major setback only if you think there was a chance of an August vote actually happening. At this point, there really wasn't.

And why don't the Blue Dogs want to vote now? They want to wait and see what the Senate produces. If they have to take what they consider a hard vote--to raise somebody's taxes, to change the way Medicare pays for medical services, whatever--they don't want to stick their necks out any more than is absolutely necessary. 

The other, related reason is the experience members of Congress had after voting for the energy bill earlier this summer. When they went home to their districts, they heard from a lot of unhappy voters, many of them repeating right-wing talking points about how cap-and-trade would kill jobs and cost them thousands of dollars in higher energy bills. As one liberal strategist todl me today, "All we hear, every day, from members is that 'this is just like cap-and-trade and we're doing this again. We got killed.' "

That's a disheartening note, to be sure. But, once again, it's easy to overlook what's actually a pretty big step forward. If this deal holds--and that's not certain, particularly given the anxiety of liberal Democrats over what is being given away--three House committees working together will have passed nearly identical pieces of legislation. And while it remains to be seen exactly what the final bill looks like, chances are it will still be very good legislation.

--Jonathan Cohn