Looking Back

by Jonathan Bernstein

Virtually everyone who supports health care reform, and I think Washington conventional wisdom in general, now blames Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Max Baucus, and the Democratic Party in general for taking too long to finish it off last year.   I don't think that's entirely wrong, but I do think it's massively overstated.  For example, Marc Ambinder says that part of what he considers a "perfect storm" that prevented health care reform from passing to date was "an elongated process [and] weak leadership from the White House."

There are really three issues here.  First, how long would a quick process take?  Second, was the Gang of Six a pointless delay, or a successful tactic?  Third, when did the Democrats have 60 votes?

On the first part, I think it's just wishful thinking to believe that the Democrats could have put a bill on the floor of the Senate before August recess.  The House, which had no supermajority rules constraints, wasn't ready before August recess. The final House committee reported the bill out just before the break.  Realistically, it would take a minimum (barring emergency conditions, which do not apply here) of three weeks for the House to merge the bills, get a CBO score, get a rule, and complete floor action.  The Senate would take longer.  While people did note that the president's original schedule had slipped by then, I'm aware of no reporting that attributed the delay to anything other than how long it took for Democrats themselves to reach a deal.  So let's say that, without the Gang of Six, both House and Senate might have been ready to act immediately after the August recess (had they finished all committee work before the recess and then used August to merge the bills and ready them for floor action).

The Gang of Six drama seemed to last forever, but in fact it was essentially just a two month delay, with Max Baucus producing a bill to take to committee on September 16.  Now, I continue to believe the delay was (deliberately or not) a very successful strategy; I think marginal Democrats are desperate for cover from attacks that they are partisan liberal Democrats, and the Gang of Six functioned to demonstrate that Democrats were trying hard to reach a partisan deal, and so it wasn't their fault that Republicans rejected them.  So I think it was two months well-spent.  I could be wrong...but at any rate, it was two months.

Sort of.  I said above that there was no chance to bring the bill to the Senate floor before August recess.  But they also couldn't have moved forward in the first half of September.  Ted Kennedy died on August 25, and Paul Kirk was not sworn in until September 24.  Indeed, given the Al Franken delay (sworn in July 7) and Kennedy's illness, it's not clear whether the Democrats could ever have counted on having 60 votes at any point before September 24.

The actual vote on the motion to proceed to the bill was on November 21, just before Thanksgiving.  So, the entire delay that we're talking about here is just under two months.

I do think that once the Democrats knew the Massachusetts timeline, they should have pushed to get the bill done just a little bit quicker, worked through the winter break, and produced a final House/Senate compromise that could have been ready to go to both Houses of Congress in the first or second week of January.  By then, Harry Reid knew about the Massachusetts election, and given how close they were anyway he should have used that deadline to force quicker action.  As far as I can tell, the Democrats did not try particularly hard to move quickly after the Finance Committee markup ended, and I think that was a mistake.

But the rest of it?  There was no way for them to know back in July that mid-January was going to be a deadline.  There's no way at all for us to know if Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman, and the rest would have signed on to a bill that really would have been rammed through by a partisan process in late September.  And this entire perspective overlooks how difficult it was always going to be to find a compromise that all sixty Senators (and a majority of the House) could live with.  No, it didn't require a perfect storm to stop health care reform -- it took quite a bit of skill to get reform as far is it did get last year, and the White House and Congressional leaders deserve credit for it.