The Real World: Senate

or, what happens when procedure becomes everything…

Like some folks, I spent part of yesterday tuned into C-SPAN, watching various Senators give short speeches on…well, I’m not exactly sure, because yesterday’s cloture vote was a vote on moving forward with debating the Senate health care reform bill.

Seriously. Not kidding you. So, if you were thinking that this morning saw either the death throes of freedom or the birth of a vital part of our safety net, you’re going to be disappointed.

What’s more, every vote from here on out is going to be a high-wire act – meaning that every vote is going to be a cloture vote. There’s no guarantee, given Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s past performance, that we’ll win every one of those votes, either.

Nate Silver (I think it was him, I’ll have to check) tends to be a pessimist when it comes to these things, particularly when it comes to the public option. I’m more of an optimist, at least at this point.

I’ve got some thoughts on what comes next. If you’re at all familiar with the contours of the health care reform fight, a lot of this will be known facts; if not, well, hey, you learned something! Thanks, and don’t forget to tip your bartenders and waiters.

  1. Now is when the stakes of the health care reform fight are the highest. Basically, the burden of whether or not President Obama signs a health care reform bill into law lies on four Senators: Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln, and Joe Lieberman. Other Senators – like Evan Bayh – might become part of the picture, but really, it comes down to those four.
  2. While those four would likely be happy with health care reform going away, it’ll be extremely hard for those four to escape retribution if the bill fails. They’d like nothing more than to blame any failures on progressive intransigence, but my gut tells me that progressives aren’t going to give them that easy out.
  3. That said, much of the above depends on Harry Reid not weakening the public option any more than it already has been. My gut tells me that Reid would do nearly anything to cement the support of Nelson & Co., including all but scrapping the public option.
  4. That means that progressive pressure has to advance on two fronts – pressure on Harry Reid not to compromise with folks like Nelson and Lambert Lincoln, and pressure on Nelson & Co. to think beyond their short-term political futures and actually do something for people.
  5. For what it’s worth, if I were a progressive, I’d be extremely reluctant to support any of the five people I’ve mentioned in the future. Health care reform is a foundational Democratic issue. If you’ve got qualms with it – and *none* of the aforementioned four (Nelson, Lambert Lincoln, Landrieu, and Lieberman) have raised any *rational* objections to the legislative package in question – then Democrats should question why they should support you.
  6. As for Reid, his performance leading the majority has been lackluster at best. Despite what some folks may think, you don’t necessarily need a caucus leader who treats the caucus the way LBJ did. You do need a leader who’s willing to crack the whip when necessary.

I’m not saying that the time for debate on health care has passed – obviously, there’s still much work to be done. Yesterday’s vote, though, was a simple procedural vote on allowing debate and markup to begin. That’s it. There’s no excuse for a self-appointed gang to hold health care reform hostage on a simple procedural vote allowing debate to begin on the issue. A caucus leader ought to be able to enforce party-line discipline on a procedural vote.

Instead, Reid allowed it to become high political drama. That’s not the mark of a good parliamentary leader, and it leads me to question whether it’s in progressives’ best interests to give material, aggressive – rather than passive – support to him, regardless of how the battle for health care reform plays out.

Much is on the line. The high-wire act will only continue.

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