While the American public remains, at best, deeply divided over the merits of the health care reform bills that have been bouncing around Congress for the past year, the Obama administration and the Democratic leadership remain committed to bringing health care reform to a final vote, even if it means engaging in procedural maneuvers that are constitutionally questionable.
As of this writing, even House Majority Whip James Clyburn admits that he does not have the 216 votes needed to pass the bill and that the final vote may be delayed past the Easter break.
Politically, the health care debate has been nothing short of a disaster for the Democratic Party. For several weeks now, Republicans have been widening their lead in the generic congressional ballot, and analysts like Larry Sabato are already projecting Republican gains in the Senate and the House. Moreover, one recent poll shows that even Democratic voters in swing states would be inclined to vote against a congressperson who votes in favor of the bill currently pending in the House of Representatives.
But it gets worse from there for the Democrats.
In addition to opposition from the right and the vast American middle, the Democrats are also fighting off an attack from their left flank. A group calling itself the Progressive Change Campaign Committee has been pressuring House Democrats to include a public option in the reconciliation package that will be sent to the Senate, and labor union leaders are threatening Democrats who vote against health care reform with third-party challenges from the left. Even Dennis Kucinich is under fire for not falling in line behind the Pelosi/Reid bill.
Given these twin attacks from both directions, it’s easy to see that Democrats will face a problem regardless of what happens with health care reform in the coming days and weeks.
If the bill passes, and especially if it passes due to procedural means that, while legal, give the entire process the air of trickery and deceit, they will face the ire of the voters who make up the much-derided but incredibly energized tea party movement. House Democrats who won in 2006 or 2008 in districts better described as purple than blue will find their jobs in danger. Add to that the prospect that liberal voters may take their anger out on the party by staying home, and the prospect of substantial Republican gains becomes much more likely.
The situation isn’t any better if the bill doesn’t pass. In that case, Republicans will be energized in the same way that they were after President Clinton’s health care plan was defeated on the eve of the 1994 elections. Because of sheer numbers, it’s unlikely that the GOP will get both houses of Congress back this year, but they would be likely to make substantial inroads in both. At that point, we’ll start seeing political pundits referring to President Obama as a lame duck. It won’t be true, but it will hurt the administration nonetheless.
More importantly, though, a defeat on health care will likely mean the end of the Obama administration’s legislative agenda for the rest of the year. Republicans are unlikely to compromise on cap and trade or immigration, for example, after having won such a substantial victory, especially not on the eve of an election, and Democrats aren’t going to stick their necks out for the president when their own seats are at risk.
Regardless of what happens with health care reform, then, the Democrats are in a “dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t” position.
In retrospect, of course, this shouldn’t have happened. Obama came into office with high approval ratings and substantial majorities in both houses of Congress. He should have been able to do whatever he wanted. The fact that he’s failed to date to get what is clearly the defining piece of legislation of his presidency passed is an indication of one simple fact: when the American people voted for Barack Obama in November 2008, they were not necessarily endorsing his entire agenda. By getting behind a bill that essentially remakes one of the largest segments of the economy, he reached too far, and now, win or lose, his party will pay the price.
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