Assessing the chance of House passage of health care reform

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Post asked former congressional leaders and other political observers to forecast how health-care reform will play out in the House -- and in November. Below, responses from Ed Rogers, Sarah A. Binder, David Bonior, Douglas E. Schoen and Martin Frost.


White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; chairman of BGR Group

To pass the Obama health-care bill in the House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Obama must assemble a coalition within the Democratic caucus of the politically doomed, defiant and delusional.

For the doomed, the calculation is easy: "If I vote for this turkey, I will lose reelection, but I get a plum executive branch post in return." The problem is there may not be 40 or so jobs open in January, when these people will be looking for work.

The defiant are an interesting lot. They have decided it is better politically to pass something unpopular and harmful to the economy than it would be to not pass something unpopular and harmful for the economy. They know that most of their constituents are against it and in many cases will be economically hurt by the bill, but they are going to vote for it anyway. Whether House Minority Leader John Boehner becomes the next speaker will depend on this group of at least 30 lawmakers.

The delusional are probably the most at peace with themselves. Zombie-like, they believe they are doing something good. Many in this group are not burdened by knowing much about the facts of the issue, the specifics of the bill or how the details will affect real people and businesses. They just know they are for "health care" and they are for "reform," and they believe this is it.

However, Pelosi is having trouble. Much of her caucus is angry about how they have been abused and misinformed about previous health-care votes. She also has opponents in her own leadership ranks who believe they could benefit if she fails on health care.

The burden of whipping the caucus and securing the votes falls on the White House. So far nothing has happened to indicate it is up to the task.


Senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor of political science at George Washington University

Never underestimate Nancy Pelosi. No one can pretend to know whether the House speaker can persuade her Democratic colleagues to vote for the Senate health-care bill. The vote is too close to call. So far, Democratic leaders have lost four of their 220 original votes for reform. With 432 House members, Democrats are one vote shy of the requisite 217-vote majority -- assuming no one changes his or her vote from the fall. So the speaker's challenge is steep: Convert some nays into yeas and hold onto nearly all of the yeas.

Political scientists tell us that leaders create majorities for controversial bills by purchasing support, vote by vote. Call it greasing the skids with pork. Recall how President Clinton cemented his NAFTA majority, doling out C-17 cargo planes to a Texas district and tariff deals to southern Florida. Given the contentiousness of the health-care debate and public distaste for the Cornhusker deal, Pelosi would have to select her targets and currency carefully. The four retiring Blue Dogs are natural candidates for converting into yeas, given the lower cost of the Senate bill. So, too, are the two Blue Dogs whose districts Barack Obama carried. More boldly, Pelosi's lieutenants could seek to convert the five electorally safe Blue Dogs who hail from districts in which Obama garnered nearly half the vote.

To be sure, we don't know whether the strategy would offset any yea votes lost over the abortion issue. Nor should we assume that the Senate yet has 50 votes for a reconciliation fix. But expect the speaker to punch far above her weight to get the House to 217.


Director of the University of Southern California's Unruh Institute of Politics; communications director for John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi can't pass this health-care bill. But President Obama can.

According to Friday's Post, Pelosi must convince anti-abortion Democrats that the Senate version of health-care reform is more restrictive than they think it is, while simultaneously convincing pro-choice Democrats that that same Senate bill is less stringent than they believe it to be. This is an attainable strategy -- as long as her members neither talk to each other nor read the newspaper between now and the time they vote. Otherwise, it is fundamentally contradictory, and every vote gained on one side will likely result in a vote lost on the other.

After that, there's merely the distrust bordering on hatred that many of her members harbor toward their Senate colleagues. She must first mollify this in order to get her troops to vote for new legislation based on nothing more than promises that 51 of those same Senate Democrats will then pass a reconciliation bill to bridge the disagreements between the two chambers. That's a tall task for even the savviest of political operators and the most eloquent of leaders. Pelosi is neither.

But Obama can make this happen. After months of ceding leadership in the debate to Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, he has stepped forward with a bill of his own and a strengthened commitment to the nuts-and-bolts of legislative deal-making. It's not an ideal place for a president who has positioned himself as an outsider, but it's the small-group, closed-door arm-twisting sessions with reluctant rank-and-file members that will ultimately help him piece together the support he needs. Liberals seem to have bought into his "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good" argument. Now all Obama needs is to come up with a pitch that's as effective with the Blue Dogs, and he'll have himself a health-care bill.


House majority whip from 1991 to 1995 and chair of American Rights at Work

In 1994, the Democratic Congress was swept out of power for myriad reasons. Chiefly, the foundation of Democratic support buckled from the betrayal working families felt when NAFTA left their jobs unprotected and Democrats failed to pass health-care reform. A similar dynamic is shaping up heading into these midterm elections. Working families are disillusioned by staggering job losses coupled with the federal government's massive bailout of Wall Street fat cats. And the prospect of once again failing on the health-care front has the base of the party stunned and angry.

The difference today, however, is that health-care reform has advanced to the goal line, and a well-managed, concerted effort can put it across.

This moment is a rendezvous with destiny. It is time to remember that, even if voting for reform doesn't guarantee your reelection, you don't get elected to preserve your own job. The country deserves your courage. I know many members believe that.

The task of winning the House vote falls to the president, the speaker and every elected Democratic leader in the country -- governors included. The standard for President Obama is President Clinton's amazing effort to help win the historic budget vote in 1994. Every Democratic governor must be enlisted to leverage their delegations.

House Democrats have actually had a very productive year. I believe House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her team are smart, tough, and effective. With a fighting Obama they will pass health care.


Democratic pollster and author

Right now, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi doesn't have the votes to get health care passed. She and the president face a number of serious problems.

First, the arithmetic. With Democrats having left Congress and the defection of the one Republican who supported the bill, it is clear that there are fewer than the 217 votes Pelosi needs. So she needs to hold all of the former supporters and get some former "no" votes to change. That is going to be tough.

Then there is abortion. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) has made it clear that the Senate bill is unacceptable to him along with 11 colleagues who supported the House legislation originally. Some of them may be persuaded, but others who oppose the bill paying for any abortion in any way will not be persuaded. Moreover, even if Pelosi is successful in persuading Stupak, she has to keep the larger pro-choice majority that supported the bill enthusiastically on board.

There is another equally delicate challenge Pelosi faces: convincing the liberals that the pared-down Senate bill deserves to be passed. The president began to do this Thursday by saying that it was a first step to the public option. But in doing that, the president risks antagonizing moderates who prefer a less expensive bill and who may justifiably feel that it will be the first step to government-run health care.

Finally, and probably just as challenging, Obama needs to convince his party and particularly House Democrats that they will not be committing political suicide by voting for the bill. Elected officials simply are not going to be persuaded by Pelosi's line that they should stand for something bigger than themselves. With polling showing a solid majority against the bill, the most likely result of health-care passage will be an overwhelming defeat in November, something that is becoming increasingly clear to observers of every political affiliation.


Former representative from Texas; chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 1995 to 1998

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi can get the votes because all Democrats will suffer this fall if the president fails to pass his top domestic priority. She will need to get the votes of some retiring members who voted no the first time and from some conservative members who voted no because the bill contained a public option, which has now been eliminated. She may lose some members on the abortion issue, but I believe she can make up for those defections by working the caucus one on one.

This is, in fact, a classic example of the principle that we all hang together or we all hang separately.

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