The Hard Part About Playing Reconciliation is Knowing When to Flinch

by Benjamin Domenech on 5:21 pm February 23, 2010

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Over at RealClearPolitics, Sean Trende asks the rhetorical question: Is it really game on for reconciliation?

Liberal supporters like Paul Krugman and Jon Cohn are ecstatic, and see victory on the horizon. Opponents like Perrin and Megan McArdle have a “yeah, right” take on this. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. I think that the odds on the current plan passing are somewhere around 50-50, without enough information to determine whether the probability distribution skews positive or negative (though I suspect positive).

Here’s the problem that reconciliation predictions run into: there’s simply no way to do the math. Phil Klein speaks to this today in a focused effort to assess the numbers in the House, and even he runs into trouble along the way. You just can’t predict whether these congressmen want to keep their jobs or not, nor can you predict the number of them who are even now considering running “I’m not that kind of Democrat” campaigns, where a vote against health care would serve as definitive proof.

More Trende:

On a rational level, the “no way this passes” arguments have the better of it. Setting aside the procedural headaches — and I think most of what Obama has proposed probably CAN be done with reconciliation — the whip count is daunting. There are probably 50 Democratic Senators willing to vote for the reconciliation “sidecar,” which pulls the plan somewhat to the left. That allows nine Democrats to vote for the plan before they vote against it, and the bill still passes. The best thing that Democrats have going for them here is that there are only two Senators from red states up for re-election this year, and one of them is retiring. If this were happening in 2012 or 2014 I’d say “no way.” But in 2010 it might work; it is easy to see 50 Democrats say (a) I really want this to pass, even if it kills me politically, (b) I think public opinion turns around on this by the time I’m up, (c) I’m at 30% in the polls already, so I’m dead meat either way, so let’s hope for a nice Administration position and/or (d) I’m from Rhode Island, so this will help me.

It is a different story in the House, where everyone is up this year. The House passed the bill back in those bygone days when Obama’s approval rating was plus ten in the RCP average, as opposed to plus 1.6 today, and when polling on the bill still occasionally showed more people in favor of the bill than opposed (only two polls, which were taken of all adults rather than voters, have shown only single digit opposition since mid-January).

Here’s the situation in Washington, which I think is slightly different than the one Trende outlines: the White House — or perhaps I should say Rahm Emanuel, since I am of the opinion that the collected political acumen of Axelrod, Jarrett, and Plouffe is highly overrated (they are proven and effective at one thing, and one thing only: winning closed Democratic primaries) — is fully cognizant of two facts. Fact number one: every day that goes by cuts down on the percentage of likelihood that any comprehensive health care reform will pass. Fact number two: if Republicans capture the House but not the Senate, President Obama’s chances of being reelected in 2012 roughly double.

They still want to hold the Senate — nominations would prove quite difficult even in a marginally Republican Senate — but they don’t like or respect Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid is of no particular use to them. They are happy to lose five seats in the Senate and hand things off to Chuck Schumer, and they are ready and willing to lose fifty House seats and have two years of foils in the House in the persons of Boehner, Cantor, Ryan, et al.

The question then becomes: who will the House members listen to? Pelosi does not have the votes for reconciliation at this juncture according to my math (but, see above, this math is impossible). She will have to wheel and deal with at least five members to get a majority in support of this package, and possibly as many as ten — a number that could increase dramatically if the White House’s ridiculous refusal to keep the president’s word on abortion funding has moved another half dozen people to the “No” side. This wheeling and dealing could be the difference between ensuring a narrow margin in the House for the Democrats — one that would likely be enough to keep her in leadership — and putting her own fate in stone.

Legislative proposals die in odd ways in Washington. One day it’s all consuming, at the peak of attention. Then things drift, other issues come up, there are bills that have to pass in the meantime, people get tired, people burn out. Then one bright Sunday morning you wake up, go to church, watch three hours of the morning shows on DVR, and no one remembered to mention that thing that everyone was talking about back in January. And then you know it’s dead.

The hard part about playing the reconciliation game is knowing when to flinch. If I were a moderate House Democrat, I’d wait til Friday, then flinch.

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