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Failed Reform Would Haunt the Democrats Like the Undead

President Obama is going to address another Congressional gathering today. The audience will be more friendly this time: It will be the Senate Democratic caucus. But the stakes will be just as high as they were when Obama spoke to Republican House members last week.

Health care is bound to come up at the meeting. I assume Obama will raise it during his prepared remarks; if not, he'll get questions about it. And the big controversy right now is whether the Senate is willing to amend its bill through the budget reconciliation process. It's the only way to make changes to health care at this point, since the Republicans have vowed to filibuster the final vote--and, thanks to the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts, they have the forty-one votes necessary to sustain it. (In reconciliation, a minority can't block the final vote.) And such changes appear to be necessary, because the House has made clear it won't approve the Senate's bill without some changes.

The problem is that Senate Democrats aren't very happy about taking a reconciliation vote right now. Some worry that the move smacks of partisan politics at a time when the public wants, or says it wants, bipartisanship. Some worry it will seem like trying to bend legislative rules, at a time when voters are clearly angry about the deals Democrats made with special interest groups and some of their own members in order to pass the original bill. And some just want to be done with health care reform, because voters are clearly tired of it and want to hear about jobs instead.

The anxiety is, as you might expect, most pronounced among senators who represent more conservative states and/or are up for re-election this year. Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln, who is probably the most vulnerable Democrat running this year, has made clear she'd prefer not to take a reconciliation vote on health care. Her Arkansas colleague, Mark Pryor, has said similar things, as have Indiana Senator Evan Bayh and Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu. The Democrats can afford up to nine defections and still prevail. But you can conjure up five possible to probable "no" votes pretty quickly--in addition to Bayh, Landrieu, Lincoln, and Pryor you'd include Connecticut's Joe Lieberman.*

The best arguments for moving forward are the ones all of us have been discussing over the last week. All of these senators voted for health care reform already. Republicans will attack them for it no matter what. Their best bet is to pass the bill into law, since that will give them an accomplishment they can tout and clear tangible benefits they show to voters. (As Kevin Drum noted in a must-read analysis, this isn't merely speculative. New polling data suggests Democrats do no worse--and perhaps a little better--politically if they pass a bill. And I'd argue the poll question actually understates the jump, since there's no way for people to know how they'll vote ten months from now.)

Voting for reconciliation will also change the media narrative and clear a path for passing more legislation going forward, even with a "mere" majority of 59 votes.

But there is at least one other reason the Senate ought to go forward with reconciliation.

It occurred to me the other day, when the Republicans sent out a fund-raising email warning that health care reform won't die until the end of the congressional session. The e-mail (I can't seem to find it now, but trust me that it went out) observed that, at any point, the House could decide to hold a vote on the Senate bill. Right now House leadership say they don't have the votes to approve the Senate bill by itself. But if the political equation changed, and the House could pass the bill, it'd go straight to the Democrats and become law.

That observation is absolutely correct. And it speaks to the folly of trying to run away from the issue. Ezra Klein has observed that health care won't die with a bang--there won't be a vote against it or even an announcement that the Democrats are giving up. Instead, it will simply stop making progress and, eventually, stop getting attention. But precisely because the bill can't really die (unless Democrats want to take the formal step of rejecting it, which seems implausible), it will lurk around Washington, haunting the Democrats like the un-dead. Republicans will keep talking about it, noting that it's always one vote away from becoming law. And they'll be right.

By the way, C-Span is supposed to cover today's meeting between Obama and the Senate Democrats. It starts at 10 a.m. I'll be following on my twitter feed, @jcohntnr, and blogging about it later.

*You'll notice I didn't include one of the usual suspects in that list: Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson. He could vote no, for sure, but he's got a really strong reason to vote "yes."

The Senate bill includes the infamous "Cornhusker kickback": A deal, brokered to win Nelson's vote, under which the federal government would assume much more of the cost of Nebraska's Medicaid expansion. The deal was so crass it ended up embarrassing not just the Democrats as a whole but Nelson in particular. He's said he wants to fix it, by amending the bill so that the federal government simply gives more Medicaid money to all of the states (which, as it happens, would be good policy too).

At this point, though, the only way to do that is reconciliation. And that's something the rest of the Senate should consider. All of them voted for the same bill--including the special giveaway to Nebraska. If they pass a reconciliation fix, not only will they have a bill on which to run: They can say, legitimately, they improved the bill and cleaned it of some of its problems. OK, that's two more reasons to push ahead.