For more than a year, Senator Jay Rockefeller has been champing at the bit. Despite his role as the chairman of the Finance Committee’s Subcommittee on Health, he found himself excluded from the small circle of senators negotiating health care reform because of Max Baucus’s unwillingness to consult lawmakers with a liberal reputation. (Of course, he saw no harm in including a conservative Republican like Mike Enzi.)
Now that Rockefeller’s moment has finally arrived, he is showing every intention of making up for lost time and imposing himself on the health care landscape. And it looks like his determination might help progressives find their voice in the Senate debate.
Baucus’s centrist allies have not shied away from holding up the legislation to push it rightward. Some have taken the direct route of unambiguously coming out against key parts of the bill (Blanche Lincoln and Joe Lieberman). Others choose to play up their indecision and accentuate Democratic divisions; Kent Conrad, for instance, has become a master in the art of sabotaging a policy proposal without looking like a culprit as he continuously insists the votes are not there to pass a public option without specifying how he himself would vote.
Liberal senators have been unwilling to be as combative as their House counterparts in debating centrists, and the main front of opposition to the party’s Baucus wing has long looked to be the lower chamber’s Progressive Caucus. Not only is the bill produced by the HELP committee decidedly more moderate than the one written in the House, but no Democratic senator was playing up his support for a public option, to strong subsidies and to a robust exchange to such an extent as to get the press to report that Baucus’s compromise efforts could lead to truly major problems with the Senate’s left.
Given that situation, it became hard to see what could tip the balance towards progressives in their confrontation with centrists - especially once Barack Obama sided with the latter group in his Wednesday’s speech, at least as far as the public option is concerned. Yet, Rockefeller has started to change that dynamic.
It all started in a conference call organized by the Campaign for America’s Future, during which the West Virginia Senator unleashed. “There is no way in present form I will vote for it,” he said. “Therefore, I will not vote for it unless it changes during the amendment process by vast amounts.” Today, Rockefeller continued to blast Baucus on everything ranging from process concerns to his draft’s substance, reserving much of his scorn to the co-op proposal in a letter he wrote to the finance committee chairman:
First, there has been no significant research into consumer co-ops as a model for the broad expansion of health insurance. What we do know, however, is that this model was tried in the early part of the 20th century and largely failed.
It seems to me that, if you are proposing to implement consumer health insurance co-ops on the scale contemplated by the Finance Committee, then you certainly should know what has been the experience with them so far.
I believe it is irresponsible to invest over $6 billion in a concept that has not proven to provide quality, affordable health care, when we know that a public health insurance option will rein in costs and save taxpayers billions of dollars.
Can you blame such a senior lawmaker whose area of expertise this from being so frustrated to have been excluded from these negotiations for the past few months? Speaking of co-ops, by the way, Ezra Klein analyzes that Baucus’s version of a co-op proposal “is a neutered version of the co-op idea, which was in turn a neutered version of the public option” (which, we might add, was a neutered version of a single-payer plan).
Liberals needed to make Baucus’s bill look like the centrist option
Rockefeller’s comments have been all over the news and that has undoubtedly shaped the coverage of the release of Baucus’s long-awaited proposal today. Suddenly, concerns voiced by other Democrats sitting on the Finance Committee were taken more seriously: Wyden’s insistence that he is not comfortable with the bill’s affordability provisions, Burris’s claim that he will not support a PO-less bill and Menendez’s dissatisfaction with Baucus’s anti-immigrant rhetoric can only be more credible once it looks like Democrats will not neatly fall behind whatever Baucus proposes.
An NPR story I heard spent more time discussing Democratic opposition than GOP objections, and a New York Times graph clearly identifies Baucus as the representative of centrist Democrats rather than as the party’s overall representative. (That might seem to be a given, but it was starting to be muddied by the increasing identification between Baucus and Obama’s stances. “The much-ballyhooed, long-wrangled-over Baucus health care proposal, which has largely become President Obama’s blueprint…,” wrote the Times this morning.)
What is the effect of this?
First, it makes Baucus’s proposal look more centrist than it would otherwise. Had liberals not upped the volume, the dominant story this morning would have been Baucus’s failure to bring Republicans on board - and that would have helped Olympia Snowe, Chuck Grassley (and other Republicans who are not looking to negotiate) insist that the Montana Senator’s bill is too liberal. Instead, equally discussed today was the prospect that Baucus has compromised so much as to endanger the bill on the left.
Liberal discontent forces everyone to contemplate just how much Baucus has already agreed to during Gang of Six negotiations - and it makes it all the more bizarre that he has agreed to follow through on compromises even though he obtained the support of none of the Republicans (Snowe, Enzi and Grassley). When Rockefeller asks what then was the point of scaling back Medicaid expansion and reducing subsidies, what will Baucus answer?
All of this disrupts the narrative Baucus and Conrad have spent months developing: the bill will get closer to 60 votes the more it is pushed rightward. Now, the press has to include a paragraph about how stripping the bill of a public option could lose Rockefeller’s vote whenever it discusses a centrist senator’s claim that the votes “are not there” to create such a plan. In these conditions, it will be much harder for Baucus to justify watering key provisions down further.
What is next?
None of this means that the public option will suddenly find its way in the Baucus bill, but no one expects Rockefeller to get everything (or even most) of what he wants. Not even Rockefeller expects that. This is a legislative process, and compromise will happen. But the bottom line is that compromise kept happening in a rightward direction, consistently diluting provisions liberals believe should be in the bill.
Rockefeller and his allies’ decision to intervene now means that Olympia Snowe will stop looking like the only senator worth following and that Baucus will be forced to make concessions to the left before his bill even emerges out of the Finance Committee. “Jay has done so much for health care and there will be a lot of opportunities for all of us to work together to find a compromise,” Baucus said today. How often have we heard him discuss the need to compromise with a liberal Senator as opposed to a centrist Republican?
One example of an issue on which the Finance Committee’s liberal discontent could make a difference. The Congressional Budgetary Office’s preliminary analysis of the Baucus bill finds that it would reduce the deficit over a 20-year window. Given the Democrats’ goal is to have a deficit-neutral bill, this gives the Montana Senator some wiggle room in negotiations.
On the one hand, he can boost the spending size - increase the size of the bill (which, at $860 billion is under what many experts say is needed to insure universal coverage) and grant higher subsidies. That latter topic has indeed become a major source of liberal angst, as analyses show that Baucus’s proposed levels would not be enough to make health care affordable for those who would be required to buy it. On the other hand, Republicans like Grassley will insist that Baucus take this opportunity to decrease the revenue part of the bill - namely lower taxes.
It’s difficult to imagine Baucus willingly taking the former route, as he has been very reluctant to increase subsidies even though Snowe was reportedly in favor of doing so. But if he suddenly faces a full-on rebellion among Finance Committee’s Democrats - if he realizes that he needs to “find a compromise” with “Jay” - will this not be the type of issue on which liberals can expect to reap some rewards?
The 60th vote?
In what is another development that could boost liberals, reports are now indicating that the Massachusetts legislature will soon vote on whether to allow Deval Patrick to appoint an interim Senator who would seat until the January special election. The House could vote as early as tomorrow, and while I keep reading that this reform lacks a clear majority in either chamber, I can only assume that the legislature’s Democratic leaders would not agreed to bring the bill to the floor had they not whipped the issue enough to make sure they’ll have majorities. A state legislator even said that the bill could be on Patrick’s desk by September 24th, allowing the governor to quickly appoint Kennedy’s temporary replacement.
That means Democrats could have 60 Senate votes by the end of September. That would undoubtedly change the dynamics of the Senate debate: While there is no doubt that a number of Democrats are just as reluctant to support the bill as Snowe (if not more so), they would no longer be able to hide behind the need to find Republican support. If Landrieu or Conrad are unwilling to support cloture on the health care bill, they would at some point have to say so rather than invoke the lack of votes - and there is ample evidence to suggest they would rather not go that far. And it would strengthen the White House and Reid’s hands as they plead with Nelson and Lincoln to at least vote for cloture, even if they intend to vote against a final bill.