Kevin Drum

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.

Housekeeping Note

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 2:14 AM EST

I'll be traveling for a couple of days, and Nick Baumann from our DC bureau will once again be filling in for me during my absence. (Thanks, Nick!) I may contribute a post or two while I'm gone, but that depends on time and the WiFi gods. If not, I'll be back Friday afternoon. See you then.

The Kitchen Sink

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 5:09 PM EST

Josh Marshall makes the point today that one thing hurting congressional Democrats is that they aren't doing enough to force Republicans to cast embarrassing votes that can be used against them during the upcoming midterm elections.  Matt Yglesias calls this belief "a bit dangerous and delusional":

Look out the window at the state of the labor market. Not the labor market for the Washington DC metro area or for the kind of college-educated professionals likely to be social acquaintances of congressional staff, but of the country as a whole. How on earth is the electoral situation not going to be bleak for the party in charge? This is the worst recession since World War II.

Under the circumstances, there are two useful things a member of congress can do. One is to take actions that improve the economic situation. The other is to pass laws that tackle important long-run problems. But if you can’t do the first thing, I think you’re really fooling yourself if you think some kind of parliamentary hijinks are going to transform the situation.

I think my take is different: there's no reason Dems shouldn't be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Fixing the economy would clearly do Democrats more good than anything else, but honestly, it's too late for anything passed this month to have much effect by September. And although I'm in favor of tackling long-term problems, that probably has a pretty negligible effect on short-term opinion too.

So whatever happens on these fronts, that's the background that you have to accept. If the economy sucks, it's going to be bad news for Dems. But once you've done everything you can to improve the economy and address things like healthcare reform, why not also do whatever else you can to scare up a few votes? Playing games with wedge votes probably won't have a huge effect, but you might as well give it a try. Unless it's literally preventing you from doing more important stuff, there's no reason not to.

A Ray of Hope on Healthcare

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 4:41 PM EST

Greg Sargent flags the latest robopoll from Public Policy Polling as good news for the cause of healthcare reform. It turns out that Republican are ahead in the generic congressional ballot regardless, but there's a direct pair of questions asking for support levels if healthcare passes vs. healthcare failing. If it fails, Republicans lead by five points. If it passes they lead by only four points. In other words, there's no difference: Dems don't lose anything by passing healthcare, so they might as well do the right thing and then do their best to sell it to the public over the next ten months.

As much as I'd like to believe this, I was all ready to disagree with Greg. After all, what matters isn't the national sample, but how people in each state respond. And if swing states have more Republicans and fewer Democrats, "no difference" could easily lead to a several point deficit once you look at the crosstabs.

But then I went and looked at the crosstabs. And guess what? The news is actually better than I expected. Basically, Republicans are already as opposed to Democrats as they can get: 85%-4% if healthcare fails vs. 87%-4% if it passes. So it's not as if passing healthcare is going to cost any Republican votes. Likewise, Democratic support for Democrats goes from 76%-8% if healthcare fails to 79%-11% if it passes. It's the same margin either way.

But take a look at independents. If healthcare fails they support Republicans by a 14-point margin. But if it passes they support Republicans by only an 8-point margin. Democrats clearly make up some ground.

This is only one poll, and state-by-state results still matter more than a national sample. But it sure looks as though independents would be noticeably less disgusted with Democrats if they have the spine to pass their healthcare plan. What's more, since this poll makes it clear that independents are more open on the subject than either confirmed Democrats or confirmed Republicans, there's a real opportunity to win them over once healthcare is passed and everyone calms down a little.

This is a small beacon of hope, but it's real. It really does look as if passing healthcare is better for swing-state Democrats than not passing it.

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Chart of the Day: Take Two

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 2:44 PM EST

Since Bruce Bartlett has gone to the trouble of making a nice chart out of the latest Kos/Research 2000 poll, it would be churlish of me not to steal it. So here it is. Source data here. Cliff Notes version: Republicans are nuts.

But let's look on the bright side. Only 23% of Republicans want to secede from the union. Not bad! Only 21% think ACORN was able to pillage the 8 million votes it would have taken to steal the 2008 election. Reality based! And be honest: Sarah Palin does have more executive experience than Barack Obama. Especially now that she's managed that book tour. So there's nothing wrong with thinking she's better qualified to be president.

I used to talk about the Texification of the Republican Party, but that's now obsolete. We're officially seeing the Foxification of the Republican Party. It's Roger Ailes' world now, we just live in it.

This Just In

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 2:13 PM EST

So here's a weird thing. Today my copy of the LA Times has five sections instead of the usual four. The new section is called LATExtra, and it features "late-breaking stories, primarily from California but also including the latest possible reporting from throughout the nation and the world."

That's fine, I guess. But as near as I can tell, the front page of today's inaugural LATExtra doesn't contain a single late-breaking story. They're all just ordinary news pieces. The inside pages seem equally non-urgent. Very strange.

UPDATE: Thanks, commenters! Apparently the LAT leased its presses to the Wall Street Journal, which gets the late press run. So the composing room deadline for the LAT's news pages has moved up to early evening. LATExtra then gets anything late breaking, which I guess is defined as anything later than about 6 pm. Or something. LAObserved has the story.

Chart of the Day: Military Spending

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 2:02 PM EST

Via Spencer Ackerman, here's the Pentagon's estimate for future spending. Ignore the gray bars at the top — those are just the numbers for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Look instead at the blue bars. That's the base Pentagon budget, and it's increasing 3% per year in nominal terms.

If we applied the same freeze to Pentagon spending that we're applying to domestic spending, their FY13 base budget would be the same as their FY10 base budget: $531 billion. That would be a $51 billion savings in just a single year. So why not do it? What is it that makes us think our national security needs are going to get more and more pressing but not our domestic needs?

DADT Update

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 1:01 PM EST

We have good news and bad news today on the gays-in-the-military front. First the good news:

The nation’s top two Defense officials called for an end on Tuesday to the 16-year-old “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, a major step toward allowing openly gay men and women to serve in the United States military for the first time in its history.

“No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens,” Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said it was his personal and professional belief that “allowing homosexuals to serve openly would be the right thing to do.”

Needless to say, Bill Clinton didn't have this level of support from within the Pentagon when he tried to end the military ban on gays in 1993. And experience tells us that it's necessary in order to get anything done. So two cheers for Gates and Mullen. Unfortunately, there's also this:

But both Admiral Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the committee they needed more time to review how to carry out the change in policy, which requires an act of Congress, and predicted some disruption to the armed forces.

....To lead a review of the policy, Mr. Gates appointed a civilian and a military officer: Jeh C. Johnson, the Pentagon’s top legal counsel, and Gen. Carter F. Ham, the commander of the United States Army in Europe. Pentagon officials said the review could take up to a year.

Italics mine. Here's the hopeful interpretation: we're still on track to firmly end DADT in an amendment to the Pentagon budget this year, but implementation will be left up to Gates and he'll be given until, say, January 2011 to publish new regs. The less hopeful interpretation is that Congress won't do anything until the Pentagon review is done, which would mean delaying repeal until 2011 and implementation until 2012.

For now, I'll assume the hopeful interpretation since it seems more likely. But I'm a little more nervous about it than I was last week.