Down to the Wire

by Jonathan Cohn | March 14, 2010

The roll call was less than twenty-four hours away. And the votes still weren’t there. It was more than eight months ago--June 25, 2009--and the White House was hosting a luau on the South Lawn for members of Congress and their families. But with the House set to vote on cap-and-trade the next day, key members of the president’s staff and House leaders were huddling about how to proceed. There was even some talk of postponing the vote, according to two sources with knowledge of the conversation. In the end, the administration and House leadership decided to go ahead. And, over the course of the next day, they got the votes they needed. The bill passed by 219 to 212.

Not long after that vote, I spoke to a source close to House leadership. Surely, I said, the votes were always there. It was just a matter of getting firm commitments. No, this person told me. And while this source might have been exaggerating for dramatic effect, reporting from the time--not to mention the final outcome--suggests that, at the very least, success was no sure thing until the end.

You can imagine why I have been thinking about that story recently. On Sunday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that the House would pass reform within a week. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has all but promised the same thing. Conventional wisdom has taken notice: Pundits are starting to predict success and, as of Sunday evening, the probability of enactment on Intrade had peaked at 65 percent—the highest it has been since January's special Senate election in Massachusetts threw the fate of health care reform into doubt.

But nobody is saying the votes are there now. The situation, instead, seems to be analogous to what it was last June, leading up to the cap-and-trade vote. Enough House members have signaled a willingness to support the bill, without committing, to make House leaders and the White House confident they can put together a majority coalition. But the fact that they can do it doesn’t mean they will.

Over the next week, reform legislation--which consists of the Senate reform bill and a set of amendments to it—must go through several procedural steps in order to get to a floor vote.

The Budget Committee has to hold a hearing and, as I understand it, officially draw up reconciliation instructions, so that the amendments to the Senate bill can go through the Senate without the threat of a filibuster. (The Budget Committee will convene Monday afternoon.) The Rules Committee has to finalize the amendments and write a rule that will determine, among other things, whether the House takes up reform as one measure or two.

The House isn’t likely to act on any bill until it is sure the Senate will pass those amendments. That can’t happen until Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid formally presents the reconciliation package to his caucus. Oh, and somewhere along the way the Congressional Budget Office has to provide an official estimate of how much the amendments to the Senate bill will cost. As you may have noticed, the CBO hasn't produced that estimate yet.

Getting that CBO score is probably just a matter of tweaking the proposal, so that it works with the mysterious parameters of CBO's models. Similarly, most insiders seem confident the Senate will be able to commit, albeit informally, to passing the amendments--in no small part because those amendments will eliminate the Cornhusker kickback along with some other embarrassing deals.

But it’s not the procedural obstacles that loom largest now. It’s the political ones.

Conservative groups believe this is their last opportunity to stop health care reform--and they are doing their best to seize it. Last week, the Chamber of Commerce announced it was launching a national advertising campaign that would cost between $4 million and $10 million, targeting areas that are home to wavering lawmakers. You can safely assume other conservative groups will be taking similar action.

Obama, Pelosi, and their respective lieutenants think they can overcome this opposition. And, to be sure, they have some help from the world of interest groups, as well. Even as the Chamber of Commerce was announcing its offensive, the Service Employees International Union--arguably the single most effective organization in the pro-reform coalition--was telling wavering Democrats they should expect no support, and possibly a primary challenge, if they vote “no.” As my colleague Jonathan Chait notes, “This is the kind of thing the Democrats need more of right now.”

But with the vote count so close, reform may not pass without something else: A push from the outside. It’s not clear if that push will come. Recent polls show a clear change in public opinion: People are demonstrating more approval both of the Democrats and their reform bill. But, as far as I can tell, an enthusiasm gap remains. Conservatives hate the bill. Liberals, well, they’re still learning to like it.

The source of ambivalence is no mystery: Liberals are disappointed that reform lacks a public option and other elements they cherish. But this is still a bill that would bring health insurance to some 30 million people that otherwise wouldn't have it, a bill that would strengthen coverage so that it actually protects people from financial catastrophe when they get sick, and a bill that would start reshaping health care so that it provides better care for less money. It is, in short, a bill liberals should appreciate--even though they haven't appreciated it so far.

Obama talked about this on Monday, during his speech in Philadelphia:

...we need all of you to help us win that vote. So I need you to knock on doors. Talk to your neighbors. Pick up the phone. When you hear an argument by the water cooler and somebody is saying this or that about it, say, no, no, no, no, hold on a second. And we need you to make your voices heard all the way in Washington, D.C.

A year-and-a-half ago, that kind of energy got a president elected. It's been gone for a while now. This week would be a good time for it to come back.

Update: I tweaked the language to clarify what the two House committees will be doing, at least as I understand it.

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