Congress's August recess is getting closer by the day, and Democrats still don't have a finalized health reform package that would pass muster in the Senate. It's being cast as the first major defeat for President Obama; observers have wondered whether his blown August deadline will harm the chances of getting reform at all.
As bipartisan negotiations in the Senate Finance Committee--which has now become the center of the reform process--have failed to produce a bill, there has been much consternation. Heading toward recess, Obama is without a detailed, solidified plan.
But this might actually be a good thing for the president.
"I think they are better off without it," Julius Hobson, a senior policy adviser with Bryan Cave and a former top Congressional lobbyist for the American Medical Association, said.
"It's a good thing they didn't get anywhere," Hobson said of the drawn-out Senate negotiations, "because nothing gets to lay out there in the month of August and get fried."
August will bring a month-long melee of grassroots lobbying for and against Obama's reform efforts; it's a whole month for conservatives to criticize and dissect the initiative Obama has put forth. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she's not afraid of August--"It's a month"--but it may be better for her, and for Obama, that opponents of reform don't have anything from the Finance Committee to dissect.
"If you had gotten to the point where both houses had passed something," Hobson said, "that would have been okay. If the House had just passed something...that would have been okay. If Senate Finance had come out with something that didn't go anyhwere....didn't finish the markup or didn't go to the floor, that would have been all bad."
Here's what Democrats hope to have going into recess: a tri-committee House bill approved by the lower chamber. Pelosi said Thursday that the House will hammer out and vote on a final bill next week, which will be difficult, given a stalemate with conservative Blue Dogs over cost.
But that won't be the plan, per se: moderate Senate votes are as coveted as Blue Dog ones, and Senate negotiations will still lie at the heart of the process, even if the House has produced its own working model.
Passing something in the House will show that Congress is making progress, and it should alleviate some of the fear that health reform has fallen apart. But at least one conservative is hoping Pelosi succeeds, so that his group has something to talk about when lawmakers return home to consort with their constituents for a month.
"It can get nebulous when you start saying, 'They're gonna do this and they're gonna do that, and everything's on the table,'" Brandon said. "When they vote on something, it's easy for us to point out."
"If there's no plan out there, the strategy is you raise questions," Brandon said. "But when you have a specific bill, you say, 'The House passed this version, and it's gonna tax my health benefits.'"
It's about refiication: if it exists, you can hit it.
(Some other factors: If the House passes a bill, Republicans will also spend the month talking about one of their favorite nemeses--Pelosi--probably trying to make her the face of health reform, knowing that Americans viewed her less favorably than Dick Cheney last month and that her approval rating dropped to 39 percent in May, following her dispute with the CIA. And with the House vote out of the way, conservatives can focus their efforts on Senate offices, of which there are only 100.)
Not having a plan has its advantages and disadvantages during August. What Democrats may end up with is something in between: a House bill that probably won't be the final reform package--a sign of progress and proof that health reform is alive, but also an object for conservatives to attack, even if Congress isn't done crafting its plan.
A House-passed bill would show people that health care reform is moving forward; it will be up to lawmakers, liberal and conservative activists, and President Obama to present that progress and find out whether Americans like where those reforms are going.