The policy arguments aside, I have a tough time understanding politically why the Democrats did not use reconciliation to pass a big bill labeled “health care reform” (with many of the smaller dropped pieces bundled into a small “insurance regulatory reform” bill, or slipped piece-by-piece into big defense, ag, or appropriations bills). By September, it became very clear that the fight had become very partisan, that the bill labeled “health care reform” would not be overwhelmingly popular, and that there would be no real Republican cover for conservative Democrats in the Senate. The vote for health care has become politically toxic for conservative Democratic senators from conservative states like Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln.
A new Rasmussen poll found that Blanche Lincoln does not break 39% against any possible Republican opponent. The poll also indicates her vote for health care reform (which has become very unpopular in Arkansas) might be a real cause of her dropping poll numbers.
2* Generally speaking, do you strongly favor, somewhat favor, somewhat oppose or strongly oppose the health care reform plan proposed by President Obama and the congressional Democrats?
17% Strongly favor
18% Somewhat favor
9% Somewhat oppose
51% Strongly oppose
5% Not sure
By insisting that the bill be passed using regular order, where it would need all 60 votes in the Democratic caucus to break a filibuster, Obama and Harry Reid made many conservative Democrats in the Senate take votes that were not in their political self-interest. The issue had become so partisan, attempts by conservative Democrats like Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln to make the bill more “centrist-y” and lard it up with local pork simply backfired. The conservative constituents are still angry because, in the end, they still voted for something labeled “health care reform,” and the Democratic base in state is now pissed because they ended up crippling the bill for seemingly no reason (let’s not forget Lincoln’s Senate website still claimed she supported a public option even as she was saying on the Senate floor that she would filibuster any bill that had one).
Passing the bill using reconciliation with only 50 votes would have allowed several conservative Democrats–like Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln, Evan Bayh, and Mary Landrieu–to avoid taking a tough political vote.
Some have argued that using reconciliation would have made the bill less popular by making it appear more partisan. My response is that a bill that will end up passing without a single Republican vote can’t appear any more partisan. Even if using reconciliation did make the bill slightly less popular, the political ramifications for the Senate Democrats would still have been better. Democrats have 50 senators who are wither from solidly blue states, retiring, or not up for re-election for another 6 years; that’s enough to safely pass the bill from an electoral stand point.
The electoral politics of not using reconciliation perplex me. It would have given most of the Senate’s conservative Democrats freedom to vote against the bill, and made the progressive base much happier. It is true that the Republicans and the conservative media would scream bloody murder about using reconciliation, but does anyone think they could really yell louder crazy stuff about health care reform than they already have? Republicans threatened to shut down the Senate if they used reconciliation, but they already have anyway. I don’t understand why the decision was made to make senators like Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln walk the plank on this vote.