While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has secured the needed 60 votes to bring his health care bill to the Senate floor after Thanksgiving recess, there’s still a long road to go until President Obama can sign legislation into law.
The optimistic take for Democrats today is obviously that health care legislation has cleared another hurdle. And it must be said that however many ups and downs there have been throughout the process, at each stage Democrats have found a way to move the ball down field. They managed to get bills out of committees, cobble together enough votes to get the bill passed in the House, and today, to get the bill to the Senate floor. Comprehensive health care legislation has never come this close to passing at any time in American history. Thus, there’s good reason to believe that somehow the Democratic leadership, along with the White House, will be able to iron out their remaining differences, twist enough arms, and dole out enough goodies to get past the goal line.
With that said, there are plenty of ways for everything to completely fall apart for Democrats in the coming weeks and months. Though Reid was able to unite his caucus for tonight’s vote, at least two Senators — Joe Lieberman and Blanche Lincoln — have unequivocally said that they would block any bill that still included a government plan at the end of the upcoming amendment process. Sen. Mary Landrieu said that Reid wouldn’t have 60 votes unless Democrats agree to weaken the government plan so that it is triggered if private insurers don’t reach certain benchmarks. Sen. Ben Nelson has said he wants more restrictive abortion language in the bill. That doesn’t include other Democratic Senators whose votes could be in doubt depending on how the amendment process goes. It’s worth keeping in mind that once the bill reaches the floor, Reid will need 60 votes to make any changes. It’s really difficult to see how there could be 60 votes in the Senate to go as far as the House did to ensure that no taxpayer money covers abortions. And it’s also questionable whether there are 60 votes to remove (or at least weaken) the government plan.
Even if Reid figures out a way to get his caucus to fall into line and squeaks the bill through the Senate, the Senate bill would still have to be reconciled with the House version. And anything that gets negotiated in that conference (on abortion language, the government plan, etc.) could upset the delicate balance that enabled Speaker Nancy Pelosi to pass the House bill by a narrow 220 to 215 vote margin.
Another thing to keep in mind is that with the bill first going to the Senate floor on November 30, this process is now all but assured to drag into next year. And there’s a reason why the White House had been emphasizing the need to get health care done by the end of the year. The longer this drags on, the more pressure there will be on Democrats to do something about the unemployment crisis, the more President Obama’s popularity can decline, the more chance there is that unforseen circumstances can get in the way, and the closer they get to the 2010 elections.
So, on one hand, Democrats scored a big victory today, but on the other hand, if it was this difficult to keep their caucus together on a vote to bring the bill to the floor, it may not bode well for the much tougher votes ahead.
UPDATE: As expected, the motion passed with 60 votes along straight party lines, shortly after 8 p.m. The Republicans had 39 votes against it — George Voinovich was the only Senator who wasn’t present. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, he was back home observing the 30th anniversary of being elected mayor of Cleveland, with his old team.