Baucus Care....politics as usual
Here's some political reality:
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus unveiled his long-awaited health-care compromise this week to the sound of one hand clapping. You wouldn't know it from the White House, which soothingly spun the Baucus bill as a breakthrough on the forced march to reform. We were told it was a good thing that the only person in Washington who liked Max Baucus's bill was . . . Max Baucus. That everybody was unhappy meant we were getting somewhere. What matters is that the Senate now has a "common sense" product to serve as a "building block" for bipartisan legislation. Uh-huh.
Mr. Obama has the same problem he's had since the start, only magnified. That would be the left wing of his party, which is about to rip up the Baucus bill, making an ugly product grotesque. He also has the same Republican Party, only now it's so alienated as to uniformly oppose the effort. And he has the same crowd of vulnerable Senate and House Democrats who continue to pay as much attention to the dismal polls as they do to their president. Nothing new to see here, folks. Move along.
Mr. Baucus took until mid-September to release his bill because he spent months coaxing Republicans. This wasn't done out of kindness, but political necessity. The other congressional bills were so extreme as to cause a Democratic revolt. If Mr. Baucus could get buy-ins from Sens. Chuck Grassley, Mike Enzi and Olympia Snowe, he would give nervous Democrats cover.
Instead, our bipartisan White House grew weary of the bipartisan process and pressured Mr. Baucus to produce. He jettisoned his colleagues and pushed out a product that Messrs. Grassley and Enzi promptly condemned. The White House did such a good job of suggesting that Ms. Snowe was its GOP patsy—a Republican who'd vote for a ham sandwich, if only they asked—that even the miffed Maine senator has stepped back.
The result is two-fold. With no, or little, GOP support, the only way Mr. Baucus can pry his bill out of committee is to allow the left to have its way. The White House knows this, which is why the president—despite seizing on the Baucus legislation in his speech last week—is already abandoning the finance chief and his bill to the tender mercies of West Virginia's Jay Rockefeller and New York's Chuck Schumer. The White House wants a bill, any bill, and this bloc now holds all the votes in committee. Pity Mr. Baucus, who just got used.
All the more so, given that the finance chief liberal-ed up his bill—with new subsidies, new taxes, new regulation—specifically to make nice to his committee's left. Rockefeller and Co. have condemned the $775 billion legislation as too skimpy and not tough enough. By the time they are done amending, the bill will be flirting with a $1 trillion price tag, contain a raft of new taxes, and a string of new regulations. Mr. Rockefeller may be savvy enough to hold back on adding a public option, but the bill that emerges will be as liberal as he dares.
Daring is the word, as the other result of ditching the GOP is that the Blue Dogs and swing-state senators are on their own. The Baucus bill will come out looking more like the other toxic Democratic products than not, and it will now, finally, contain the unpleasant details for public review. The political risks are immense.
Does Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, up for re-election next year, with an upside-down approval rating, vote to proceed with a trillion in spending on the back of a $9 trillion deficit over the next decade? Does Florida's Bill Nelson vote to stick it to his state's Medicare Advantage participants? Does Colorado's Michael Bennet vote for billions in new health-care user taxes, or penalties on the uninsured? This is where the health-care rubber meets the road, and Majority Leader Harry Reid has but a few feet of pavement. With Ted Kennedy's seat unfilled, and Robert Byrd an uncertain presence, 60 cloture votes are not guaranteed.
What has changed is Mr. Obama's determination to push a bill through, regardless of what his party, or the public, thinks. The White House will make the case to waverers that the political fallout of a health-care failure will be worse than backlash that comes with voting for a bill. Maybe. Behind that is the further threat that Dems will go this alone, via 50-vote reconciliation, if necessary.
They'd like to avoid it, as reconciliation will be messy, uncertain and carry political fallout. Yet if the Baucus bill has done anything, it has brought the White House further down this road. The president may yet regret he didn't hit the restart button.