Monday, March 08, 2010

Gaming out the two-bill plan

The focus is now on whether or not Hill Democrats will vote for the Senate bill based on the promise that the Senate will come through on the reconciliation package. Keith Hennessey has the best analysis of what arguments will have to happen for this whole strategy to work. For those who voted no the first time, the political question is whether it would be worth it to tell constituents that they disliked the bill the first time, but that what the Senate passed is so much better and their faith in the Senate to change it through reconciliation is so strong that they now will vote yes. For those who voted yes the first time, the argument is that, sure it's a massively unpopular bill, but your constituents are already mad at you and aren't going to forgive you even if you vote no this time. Hennessey gives the counter-argument to that Democratic line of thinking.
The crass and self-interested political question is not “Do I do additional damage by voting aye a second time?” It is “Given that my opponent will attack me for voting aye last October, am I better off (A) voting aye, having it become law, and defending it, or (B) voting no, having it not become law, and explaining why I changed my vote?”

Let’s use an extreme example to illustrate this tradeoff. Suppose you cared only about getting re-elected. Suppose you knew today that on Election Day a new comprehensive health care law would be intensely unpopular with 95% of your constituents. Clearly you would be politically better off to change your vote and explain why you did. You would still take heat for voting aye last October, but that’s true in either case. And some fraction of those 95% of your constituents would give you credit for voting no the second time and helping kill the bill. Even if all of the other 5% took retribution against you for flip-flopping, the severe imbalance in the numbers makes it politically advantageous to change your vote.

This is an extreme example, and I am not arguing it makes sense for all these nervous House Democrats to switch. I am instead making the less contentious claims that (i) there is a potential political benefit to switching from an aye to a no, and (ii) this political benefit gets bigger the less popular is a new health care law in fall of 2010.
And they have to also realize that, in voting for the Senate bill, they have just provided their opponent with ready-to-make ads about how they voted for Florida seniors to keep Medicare Advantage while your constituents can't. Or the Cornhusker kickback. Or taxes on the so-called Cadillac plans. There will be a load of these sorts of ads. Are they ready for those attacks?

Then there is the whole question if House Democrats can trust Senate Democrats to carry through with the reconciliation plan. Or, if things get difficult, might they just sit back and say, we got a bill that passed both the House and Senate and that the President has signed, why sweat out the remaining problems? As John Fund recommends to House Democrats, don't take any of the wooden nickels that Obama is offering.
Now they're hearing from Senate colleagues that the GOP can be expected to make Senate reconciliation as difficult and drawn-out as possible through delaying tactics. President Obama may wind up just signing the Senate bill into law no changes whatsoever -- preserving some of the most egregious elements that made the Senate bill such a public lightning rod.

These include not just the "Cornhusker Kickback," "Louisiana Purchase" and other special-interest deals rolled into the Senate bill last December to buy wavering Democratic votes. Democrats also would have to explain all over again why 800,000 seniors in Florida will be spared Medicare Advantage cuts, while those elsewhere won't.

Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, says Mr. Obama is asking House Democrats "to hold hands, drop off a cliff and hope [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid catches them. And Harry Reid will have no incentive to catch them because by the time he gets to the reconciliation bill, the president will have already signed the health care bill into law."

Meanwhile, President Obama met with 20 undecided House Democrats yesterday in private. He urged them to put aside their political concerns and vote for the Senate bill in the interests of duty and country. "It's always a bad sign when a chief executive tells members of Congress of his own party to ignore the politics," says presidential historian Al Felzenberg. "It usually means he's got a bad product."