Nick Baumann

Nick Baumann

Senior Editor

Nick is based in our DC bureau, where he covers national politics and civil liberties issues. Nick has also written for The Economist, The Atlantic, the Washington Monthly, and Commonweal. Email tips and insights to nbaumann [at] motherjones [dot] com. You can also follow him on Facebook.

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Decision "Next Week" On Health Care Strategy

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 2:39 PM EST

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said last night that he hopes Democrats will settle on a strategy for moving forward on health care reform by sometime next week. That's good news of a sort, but take it with a few grains of salt. 

The way forward is already pretty clear. If the Democrats are going to do this, the Senate needs to use the filibuster-proof reconciliation process to pass some fixes to its health care reform bill. Then the House needs to pass the "fixed" Senate bill. That's the only remotely realistic path that anyone has suggested that gets to comprehensive reform. Every other plan is either politically unworkable (e.g., having the House pass the Senate bill unchanged) or doesn't lead to comprehensive reform (e.g., breaking the bill up). If the Democrats want to pass reform, the path is obvious. Reid is sort of beating around the bush here. When he talks about settling on a strategy, what he means is agreeing on potential "fixes," figuring out workarounds to potential procedural roadblocks, and, most important, figuring out whether he and Pelosi have the votes to proceed.

It's worth remembering that some Democrats, including Steny Hoyer, the House Majority Leader, said last week that this week would be the week that Dems would settle on a strategy for getting health care reform done. When confronted with that fact at his weekly press briefing on Tuesday, Hoyer said, "Did I say that? I was in error." He added that he anticipates making a decision "just as soon as the way forward is clear."

Democrats would also do well to think about another thing Hoyer said on Tuesday. He told the story of a woman with an "orange-sized tumor" and no insurance who called his home, explaining that she didn't know what she was going to do. She couldn't go to the emergency room, because she wasn't gushing blood, she wasn't poor enough to qualify for Medicaid, and she wasn't old enough to qualify for Medicare. But she didn't have the $12,500 she needed to have the tumor removed. "That's what this health care debate is about," Hoyer said. "We talk a lot about this complication, that complication, this that and the other thing. But what this debate is about is really that woman who called and left me a message and said 'what do I do?'"

Kevin is traveling today and tomorrow.

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Chris Dodd vs. the Volcker Rule

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 1:53 PM EST

Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who has apparently been possessed by the spirit of his colleague Max Baucus (of "gang of six" fame), is desperate to get bipartisan financial regulatory reform. Unfortunately, that probably means not actually reforming the financial sector. Here's the Times:

Mr. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, added that the administration was "getting precariously close" to excessive ambition for the legislation. "I don’t want to be in a position where we end up doing nothing because we tried to do too much," he said.

It's hard to see how anything that the administration has proposed to rein in the financial sector amounts to "excessive ambition," if by "excessive ambition" you mean something like "overregulation." But if "excessive ambition" means "too hard on the banks to actually pass," well, that's just sad. Digby says "One hates to be cynical about this, but Dodd is leaving.  And he's going to need a job." That could be right. But the other prospect, just as frightening, is that Dodd has accurately assessed the situation and realized that real financial reform can't get through Congress because the banks own the place. (That is basically what Kevin thinks, after all.) Either way, the Volcker rule is looking increasingly like a good proposal that will remain just that—a proposal.

Kevin is traveling today and tomorrow.

Health Care Questions

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 11:54 AM EST

Nancy Pelosi says "we are very close," to passing health care reform. She's in a position to know, but from the outside, Democrats don't look very "close" at all. That's because Pelosi has said that there is zero chance that the House will pass the Senate health care bill unchanged. ("Our members will not support the Senate bill. Take that as a fact.") And according to Pelosi, just having the Senate "fix" its bill at some point in the future won't cut it—changes have to pass before the House votes on the Senate bill. So there's still a lot to be done if the bill is going to pass. The Senate and the House will have to agree on a package of changes to the Senate bill. Harry Reid will have to find the votes to pass those changes through the filibuster-proof reconciliation process in the Senate. And then Nancy Pelosi will have to assemble the votes she needs to pass the modified Senate bill through the House.

There are a bunch of obstacles to this. As Greg Sargent has reported, Senate aides are balking at the prospect of passing the fixes first. David Waldman at DailyKos says it shouldn't be a problem to pass the fixes first using reconciliation. But even if Waldman's right, it hardly matters—what matters is that Senate aides think it'll be hard to pass the fixes first. That essentially means that the two houses of Congress are waiting on each other to act. The House wants the Senate to move first; the Senate says (anonymously, so far) it can't move first. That's a recipe for disaster. It's really important to find out whether what the Senate aide told Sargent is right. If the aide is right, Democrats are going to have to consider other ways to pass health care reform (or face the prospect of letting it die). And if the aide is wrong, well, what is the Senate waiting for? 

Update: In the comments, Donny Shaw points to a Politico article that has Reid saying that passing the fixes through reconciliation before the House votes on the Senate bill is a "strong possibility." That's not that different from what Senate folks have been saying openly since last week, but it does indicate that Reid may think that Sargent's aide is wrong about potential problems with passing the fixes before the actual bill. (Reid does say the House would have to start the reconciliation bill.)

Kevin is traveling today and tomorrow.

The Gitmo Rebellion

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 12:56 PM EST

It's not unusual to see Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman, (I-Conn.) complaining about President Barack Obama's conduct of the war on terror. 

But when they're openly joined by two Democratic senators—with more potentially hovering in the wings—that spells trouble for the administration's agenda. On Tuesday morning, Sens. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) teamed up with Graham for a press conference to announce a bill that would block funding for Obama's proposal to try 9/11 co-conspirators, including Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, in civilian courts.

By expressing full support for Graham's measure, Webb and Lincoln are essentially moving into open revolt against the White House's detainee policy. Lincoln, who faces a tough reelection fight in Arkansas this year, said she would be foolish if she didn't listen to her constituents and oppose the 9/11 trials. Webb insisted he was not opposing the trials because they could be held in his home state of Virginia if New York does not prove to be a feasible venue. "I wrote a column on 9/12" calling the conspirators war criminals, he reminded reporters, implying that he has always prefered the detainees to be tried in a military setting.

After the press conference, Graham didn't refute a suggestion from reporters that he also has the votes of Arkansas' Mark Pryor and Washington's Maria Cantwell. Pryor, Cantwell, and all 40 Republicans joined Webb and Lincoln in supporting a similar measure pushed by Graham in early November. The Senate rejected that measure, 55-45. But Graham said he was sure his bill would pass "overwhelmingly" this time around if it ever came up for a vote.

If Graham's gambit succeeds, it would upend the White House's promise to close down Guantanamo Bay. His legislation would require the 9/11 conspirators to be tried in military tribunals at Gitmo. That would make it close to impossible for Obama to close down the prison until after the trials were completed—a process that could take years.  

Key Senator's Health Care Reform Booster Shot

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 6:01 PM EST

Democrats' efforts to pass health care reform depend on a filibuster-proof procedural maneuver called reconciliation. If Senate Democrats can use this process to pass a package of adjustments to their version of the health care bill, Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she can muster enough votes to approve the Senate legislation in the House. But for this to work, Sen. Kent Conrad has to be with the program. The centrist North Dakota Democrat chairs the Senate Budget Committee, which handles reconciliation measures. Other centrist Democrats, such as Missouri's Claire McCaskill, have  expressed qualms about the plan. But in a brief conversation with reporters on Thursday afternoon, Conrad slammed Republican obstructionism and vigorously defended the use of reconciliation to pass important legislation.

The Senate "was not designed to have everything require 60 votes," Conrad said. "It wasn't designed to prevent important action on the problems facing the country." If a supermajority is effectively necessary to pass any piece of legislation, he added, this "puts a great deal of pressure on going to more of a reconciliation process to deal with things."

Conrad argued that it's not possible to use reconciliation—which requires merely a straight majority vote—to win passage of an entire comprehensive health care bill, as some progressives have advocated. (There are assorted rules that prevent this.) But Conrad noted that he's open to using this legislative maneuver to make limited, though significant, changes to a measure the Senate has already passed—provided that certain procedural kinks could be ironed out.

Those procedural issues involve which body would take the opening step in this legislative dance—the House or the Senate. House Democrats want the Senate to pass its changes to its health care measure first. (Otherwise, they could end up voting for a Senate bill containing provisions they don't like and then get stuck with it, should reconciliation fizzle.) Senate Democrats, however, aren't sure they can approve through reconciliation changes to a bill that hasn't yet been approved by the House. "We are being asked to pass a piece of legislation that amends another piece of legislation which does not exist yet," a Senate aide told Greg Sargent yesterday. "We are having problems with the [Congressional Budget Office] and parliamentarian on that front." The Senate just wants the House to "back off," Sargent reported. Parliamentary experts for the Democratic leaders on each side of Capitol Hill are now trying to sort all this out.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama in his State of the Union speech didn't provide any guidance on how congressional Democrats should proceed. One House Democratic leadership aide told Mother Jones that the top Democrats on the House side assume that Obama is hesitant to tell the "touchy" Senate how to do its job at such a critical juncture. The absence of any reference to reconciliation in Obama's speech, he insists, was no indication it is off the table.

Conrad, for one, didn't sound like a man with doubts about the idea. He said, "Frankly I think we have to reconsider the rules by which this body is governed," because the Senate "is in danger of becoming dysfunctional," and "there's going to be a building demand in the country to change the system."

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