Robert Gibbs's Friday morning tweet that the president had decided to delay his trip to Australia and Asia in order to finish the job on health reform legislation caps a week of intense and confusing developments. Here's a brief attempt to answer some of the basic questions about the status of health care reform, informed by reporting, analysis and informed speculation.
1. Why is the president canceling his trip? All the chips are in on health care. Everything else is being delayed. Imagine that you are a Cabinet member at a meeting, and you raise your hand to bring up a new topic, and it's not about health care, and all the White House staff look at you as if you were crazy. Health care, health care, health care. Aside from war or Lewinsky, has any White House been as consumed by one subject for so long? Very simple political calculus: whatever the effects of passing health care may be, the ramifications of not passing health care will be extraordinarily damaging to the president.
As announced to the staff by Rahm Emanuel at their morning meeting this a.m., it's because the president expects -- not hopes -- but expects to see the House of Representatives pass the Senate's health reform bill by the time Air Force One leaves the Andrews Air Force Base runway. Nancy Pelosi will schedule the vote when she knows she has the votes. As of right now, she does not have the votes. The White House, doing its own whip count, suspects that she probably does have enough members who'd be willing to vote for the bill if the circumstances are right, but that's a different question.
2. So what's the timing? This morning, the majority whip, James Clyburn, said that the House will vote within the next ten days. Yesterday, the majority leader, Steny Hoyer, said he expected a vote by the end of the week. The president's decision essentially allows the House to work on Saturday and Sunday -- gives Democrats a bit of cover -- and gives him the chance to work the phones. The idea is that the House has until the 21st or so to pass its bill, and reconciliation talks will begin on the 22nd, and the whole shebang will be shebanged by the 26th of March.
3. Is the public option dead? Why are we still talking about it? 41 senators have signed on to a pledge to try add the public option to the Senate reconciliation measure, but the White House is pushing back against this, and it is difficult to envision it being added, unless there is a general meltdown about the softening of abortion language. But the House will almost certainly amend its version of reconciliation to include it, and Sen. Dick Durbin has said that he will aggressively whip for all the House amendments -- which means that if 9 more Democrats sign on to the P.O. pledge, the P.O. gets in the bill.
4. Haven't the House leaders given up negotiating with the "Stupak 12" -- the anti-abortion rights Democrats -- over the Senate bill? It's not that they've given up, it's that they've reached an impasse. There are a few options: try to include some language in the reconciliation measure that would satisfy all twelve House members -- or try to include language that would satisfy one or two members -- which is what the leadership and senior committee chairs like Henry Waxman are focusing on. There are, of course, other ways to make a deal with Bart Stupak, but the House-Senate mistrust factor is holding them up, and it's hard to see the Senate passing an anti-abortion provision separately. Abortion isn't a budget matter, so it would need 60 votes to make it into reconciliation. That's not going to happen.
5. Didn't the parliamentarian give Republicans a victory by telling them that reconciliation couldn't move unless the president has signed the original legislation into law? (This would play upon the House-Senate mistrust dynamic because the House would have to rely on faith that the Senate would act after its bill had already acquired the force of law.) There's a dispute about what the parliamentarian said, and Democratic leaders say that they do not believe that he meant to say that Congress could not function as an independent branch of government until the executive branch performs its role in the legislative process. In general, the House has the most to gain by introducing its reconciliation package first. As National Journal reports, the larger obstacle for Democrats is the number of Republican reconciliation amendments they have to contend with.
6.Haven't several Democrats, like Luis Gutierrez, defected from " yes" to "no?" Don't count them as "no" votes just yet.Gutierrez wants to secure a promise (and public statement) from the White House about comprehensive immigration reform. He has leverage now. The leadership isn't counting him out.