Post Politics: Senate brings health-care bill to floor

Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 23, 2009; 11:00 AM

The Post's Perry Bacon Jr. was online Nov. 23 at 11 a.m. ET to take your questions about the Senate vote on the health-care bill and more.

Archive: Post Politics Hour discussion transcripts


Perry Bacon Jr.: Good morning. Congress is out, but health care remains a big debate, now in the Senate. And Sarah Palin is still on the trail. Looking forward to your questions.


Seattle: Perry,

So once the vote was taken and the motion was passed, who was the first Republican to declare it dead-on-arrival?

Perry Bacon Jr.: I don't think Republicans are saying health care is dead. In fact, they are saying quite the opposite, getting that motion to commit means the bill is likely to pass they say, despite the words of Nelson, Lincoln, etc. All but Collins and Snowe will vote against it though and they might as well.


Prescott, AZ: The only Senate floor speech I watched Saturday afternoon was by Blanche Lincoln (okay, I was watching football and caught hers flipping through channels).

Basically she said that she would vote to allow debate, but she couldn't see why so many people are bent out of shape about this public option thing, because she looked into it and it is a little itty-bitty part of the bill that wouldn't really do anything. She then declared that she would personally filibuster ANY bill that had the itty-bitty public option because it is a massive government takeover that would destroy America.

Can you explain this to me, as I have tried to search for news articles about her reasoning, but none of them really explain what seems to be a jarring disconnect in her reasoning?

Perry Bacon Jr.: Yes, she did say the public option was not that important, but at the same time say she would block the bill if it was included. I suspect this is not because of some great policy insight on her part.

I'm pulling this from a New York Times piece written about her today.

“I‘m thinking about the 450,000 Arkansans who have no health insurance,” she said as she lent her support to an initial procedural step in the most closely watched floor speech of the day. “I‘m not thinking about my re-election, the legacy of a president or whether Democrats or Republicans are going to be able to claim victory in winning this debate.”

I'm skeptical she's not viewing this in a political leans. Her comments through the summer and fall about the public option have been particularly consistent, and I wonder if that is because she sees her reelection is in serious danger.


Western Washington: If the price tag for Louisiana's vote was $300 million in special funds, how much do you think Joe Lieberman will ask for?

Perry Bacon Jr.: Nice. Lieberman is unpredictable. I have no idea what will get his vote, and I"m not sure he does either. This public option dispute will continue for at least the next three weeks I"m sure.


Lizard Island: Sarah Palin seeks out maximum media attention, then complains loudly whenever there's anything she doesn't like (e.g., the Newsweek cover), thus generating even more publicity for herself. So, is she more of a celebrity than a political figure nowadays, and thus don't the rules of celebritology apply to her?

Perry Bacon Jr.: What are the "rules of celebritology?" I think she's a more important political figure in part because she's a celebrity. I think if she endorsed a Republican in 2012 for POTUS, it would create the kind of buzz Oprah did for Obama, if not the same impact.

Not sure I agree with your take on her. I guess she seeks out media attention, but not very hard, everyone wants to interview her and cover her. We had a reporter on the road with her, although she didn't give us an interview. I think she would be pretty comfortable not giving any interviews outside of the FOX/Rush conservative universe. She gets lots of attention in part because she, as Frank Rich wrote yesterday, is such a powerful brand in American politics. Rich said something I think people forget yesterday, that culture has so much to do with politics. Palin is a key cultural figure, even as even many Republicans wonder if she has any real policy ideas. And I think that makes her relevant and powerful and therefore worth covering.


Bethesda: How grateful is the White House that Blanche Lincoln is the only "swing" senator who has a serious race next year? Chris Dodd is in trouble for his own personal reasons; backing health care probably helps him in Connecticut. Michael Bennet and Arlen Specter both have tough Democratic primaries; supporting Obama helps them. Harry Reid clearly has made his choice, regardless of opinion back home.

Perry Bacon Jr.: I think you've got this exactly right. If Ben Nelson and Mccaskill were up next year, this would be an even more complicated debate. Lincoln is behaving like someone who is terrified of losing her seat, and she also seems like the conservative anger towards Democrats in her state caught her by surprise. After the town halls of August, I think it should be obvious to any pol in a swing state that conservative activists are riled up and angry about this bill.

Yes, it helps Dodd in his state to be for public option and health care reform. Bennet and Specter both have challenges from candidates in the primary from the left. Sestak in general has been a great candidate for Harry Reid to keep Specter in line.


New York, NY: From my vantage point, it seems that the only solid argument in opposition to a public option is that it will lower executive compensation and shareholder value in the health care industry. Are there other reasons you have heard of, Perry?

If not, I guess it's not all that surprising that proponents of the status-quo (i.e., the worst health care system in the OECD -- go USA!) are -- but you'd think the media might call them on it. Wouldn't you?

Perry Bacon Jr.: Always hard to determine exactly why someone supports or opposes legislation. All the Republicans who oppose the public option say its for policy reasons; they think it's improper for the government to hold such a role in the health care market.


Cincinnati: The Republicans would not have hesitated for a second to cram something through the reconciliation process. Why is Harry Reid so reluctant to use reconciliation to cram through health care reform with a public option, needing only 51 votes?

Perry Bacon Jr.: If you can pass a bill with 60 votes, why use 51? (Many of the Senate Dems simply don't view the public option as the end all, be all) Reconciliation is also a divisive process that won't help the president in implementing his pledge to change the tone in Washington, as the GOP will go crazy.


Bowie, Md.: For a couple of days last week, the news cycle was dominated by differing opinions about the cost/benefit of mammograms in different age ranges, and the possibility that it's different by race.

If the public option passes, would this become the future of politics -- Congressional races becoming dominated by debates about mammograms and TV ads claiming that a Senator "doesn't care about the lives of African-American women" because of a cost-saving vote?

Perry Bacon Jr.: An interesting question. I think if some kind of government panel actually implements one of these policies that restrict what kind of care one can get, then yes, it will be the subject of an ad. I think it will be hard to make that claim just if someone votes for the public option that they are for rationing.


Boston: Compare Sarah Palin to Dan Quayle and Spiro Agnew. All three were slashing Republican partisans given to inflammatory speeches. All three were intensely popular among conservative Republicans, and disdained by everyone else. All three were widely mocked for their lack of intelligence. Quayle and Agnew were often talked about as presidential possibilities, but their high negatives made that unlikely. Much the same today with Palin.

Quayle and Agnew made a lot of headlines for a few years, but vanished from the scene pretty quickly, to few people's regret. I suspect Palin will suffer the same fate.

Perry Bacon Jr.: I really don't think Dan Quayle was the kind of influential figure on the right that Sarah Palin is. I don't think Palin will be a presidential candidate, but I think she could be an influential figure in conservative politics for a long time if she tried.


Bremerton, Wash.: So the White House is bringing in Tom Daschle to help get the health-care bill past this stage. Do you think there might be some blowback with those limo trips that were undeclared on his taxes?

Perry Bacon Jr.: I dont' expect he will take a high-profile public role, but will instead work behind the scenes on wooing senators.


Pittsburgh: While campaigning in 1960, JFK told Baptists in Houston, "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the President -- should he be Catholic -- how to act."

Nearly a half-century later, a Catholic Bishop wants communion withheld from JFK's nephew because of certain of his political stances and legislative votes. Isn't this a blatant violation of the flip side of JFK's declaration -- namely, evidence of Catholic church telling an elected official how to act in his official capacity, and threatening punishment for failure to do so? Or is a certain sophistry occurring here, i.e., that it's OK if the authority is only a Bishop and the target is a mere legislator (rather than a Pope controlling a Catholic President)?

So, who do you think will be more harmed in both the short and long runs by this confrontation, Representative Patrick Kennedy or the Bishop?

Perry Bacon Jr.: I think this whole bishop debate is fascinating. It seems to me neither Democratic politicians nor the Catholic Church have suffered much from this whole communion debate in terms of this debate, so not sure how to address your long term, short term question. I would submit that President Kennedy and Representative Kennedy are facing different challenges, in that people in the 1960's were trying to make sure the Catholic Church wouldn't be all powerful in a Kennedy presidency, while I think the church is now trying to show it has any influence at all in politics. I guess it violates President Kennedy's view, but I don't think the Catholic Church every agreed it would not get involved in politics. Catholic leaders have pushed for more liberal immigration policies and more conservative abortion policies through the year, specifically on this health care legislation. I am curious and don't yet know how Catholic Democrats outside of Washington view the church's aggressive abortion stance.


Philadelphia: Do Blanche Lincoln and Joe Lieberman have any sound policy arguments against the public option? Or is it just politics?

Perry Bacon Jr.: Here's Lieberman on the Meet the Press recently.

"This is a radical departure from the way we've responded to the market in America in the past," Lieberman said Sunday on NBC's "Meet The Press." "We rely first on competition in our market economy. When the competition fails then what do we do? We regulate or we litigate....We have never before said, in a given business, we don‘t trust the companies in it, so we‘re going to have the government go into that business.."

And Lincoln:

I‘ve already alerted the leader, and I‘m promising my colleagues, that I‘m prepared to vote against moving to the next stage of consideration as long as a government-run public option is included. The public option as a part of health insurance reform has attracted far more attention than it deserves. While cost projections show that it may reduce costs somewhat, those projections don‘t take into account who pays if it fails to live up to expectations. If in fact premiums don‘t cover the cost of the public plan, it is taxpayers in this country who are faced with the burden of bailing it out.


Salinas, Calif.: Re: reconciliation. I'm I "mis-remembering" that the Republican majority used reconciliation to pass G. W. Bush tax cuts in the first six years of his presidency?

Perry Bacon Jr.: You are not wrong.


Arlington, VA: Of all the Senators, only Voinowich of Ohio, a Republican, did not vote. As he voted on other legislation that day, could the non-vote indicate that he might be supportive of the health care bill?

Perry Bacon Jr.: I'm pretty sure he will be a no, he's retiring, but known as a strong fiscal conservative.


More on Blanche Lincoln: For the record, her Web site claims she supports the public option. Blanche Lincoln was for the public option before she was against it

Perry Bacon Jr.: I think that website will need to be updated.


Helena, Montana: So, if Senator Landrieu doesn't vote for cloture on the bill, can they then sock it to her and take money away from Louisiana on other things? There should be some downside for voting against your leadership.

Perry Bacon Jr.: The bill will have lots of amendments, so I do assume it could change, although I would think she wouldn't announce her final position until the last hour.


Re: Boston: Two decades ago, Dan Quayle was at least as big a figure on the Right as Palin is today. Particularly after his "Murphy Brown" speech. He made more of an effort than Palin does to be taken seriously as a conservative spokesman. Most of Palin's public statements have been incoherent.

Perry Bacon Jr.: I disagree, but posting your comment.


Silver Spring, Md.: So, exactly HOW is the public option any different from Medicaid which is currently a Fed/State funded program for individuals/families with limited income?

Perry Bacon Jr.: I think Ben Nelson would oppose Medicaid for all Americans too, in his defense.


Bethesda: "I think the church is now trying to show it has any influence at all in politics."

Every time the Church does this kind of thing (and this isn't even close to the first time a bishop has barred a legislator from communion or even threatened excommunication), it ought to raise questions about the Church's tax-exempt status.

Perry Bacon Jr.: Just posting this.


Columbia Missouri: "as the GOP will go crazy."

Can they go any crazier? Not to be facetious, but their refusal to engage in any policy-based negotiation doesn't give them a lot of leverage.

Perry Bacon Jr.: The GOP has almost no leverage. I just don't think Dems want to reconciliation.


Philadelphia : Who's easier to buy off for the 60th vote: Snowe or Lieberman?

Isn't it more likely that Snowe is interested in doing the right thing to reform health care (at least her comments are somewhat informed and coherent), whereas Lieberman is merely sticking up for a home state industry and sticking it in the eye of the D caucus?

Perry Bacon Jr.: Lots of anger at Joe in this discussion. You might be right, Snowe might be easier to win (take out the current version of the public option and go to the trigger) than Lieberman.


Tampa, FL: Could you or your colleagues at the Post ask Sens. Landrieu, Lincoln, and Nelson why gov't-run public-option crop and flood insurance are good, but not health insurance?

We've seen a massive gov't takeover of crop and flood insurance, but I don't recall their finding those gov't-run takeovers worrisome.

Perry Bacon Jr.: I think you will see more stories about their public option stances in the next few weeks.


Blanche Lincoln: If she's so worried about her reelection, you would think she would pay more attention to polls showing that even Arkansans favor the public option. How any of these conservative Democrats think they can win close elections by demoralizing the Democratic base and (apparently) hoping to win Republican voters -- who, given the option of an actual Republican, will take it -- is beyond me. I won't cry for them when they all lose, even if it means that Dems lose control of Congress.

Perry Bacon Jr.: Are people in this chat more angry at Lieberman or Lincoln?


Las Cruces, NM: What is your take on the likelihood that Congress actually has the legislative courage to stand up to all the special interest groups to cut future medicare/medicaid spending? As a former Republican, I was appalled at how Bush ballooned the deficit. I went and rang doorbells for now Sen. Udall as a result. I don't believe for a second that the numbers Obama and the Dem leadership claim are real.

Perry Bacon Jr.: I think the president and his team will spend much of the next year talking about how they want to reduce the deficit. They will also release a budget, which is their actual governing plan. I encourage you to examine the budget as closely as the rhetoric.


Hamilton, Va.: Has anyone flat out threatened Lieberman's committee chairmanship? Would anyone do it in public? Would that get his attention?

Perry Bacon Jr.: If you recall, President Obama stepped in and all but stopped Democrats from stripping him from his chairmanship after the campaign. Yes, I think if he votes against cloture, there will be some threats. The danger is he defects to the GOP and the Democrats no longer have 60 votes. Lieberman votes with them on lots of procedural issues.


Paterson, NJ: Isn't there a lot of theater in what's going on in the Senate? Reid wouldn't let this come to a vote if he didn't think he could win.

Perry Bacon Jr.: Saturday's vote was not much drama. Some of the votes in the next few weeks, on the public option and other provisions, will be interesting, determine the shape of the final bill and are not foregone conclusions.


re: filibuster: How serious are the handful of Democrats about filibustering a Democratic bill? I'm all for big tent philosophy, and I don't expect Dems to vote in lockstep with the party. But I don't see why the DNC should support the reelection of any Democrat that actually filibusters it's own party's legislation. At that point, we might as well not have a majority.

Perry Bacon Jr.: Having 60 votes in the Senate is useful for a variety of reasons, so I suspect Lincoln could oppose the bill and still get lots of DNC/Obama help next year, just like the House Dems who voted against their health care bill will still be aided by the party.


Anonymous: How do those opposed to the public option propose that those without insurance, including those laid off from their jobs, to get health care?

Perry Bacon Jr.: through the exchange, buying a private plan with the subsidies. Your health care wouldn't be free under the public plan either.


Arlington, Va.: Does the release of the climate-change emails spell the end for cap-and-trade legislation? Those emails suggest that climate scientists have been manipulating and destroying data, as well as rigging scientific journals. Does this make the idea of a new tax for global warming impossible? Hackers steal electronic data from top climate research center

Perry Bacon Jr.: I think cap and trade will be a living political issue for years, but not passed next year. Just a guess.


RE Taking Money from Louisiana: No, I was talking about taking money in other bills away from Sen Landrieu. If you are going to be bought, for crying out loud, stay bought.

Perry Bacon Jr.: I think Landrieu will vote for the final bill, so not sure what to say.


Los Angeles: Wasn't Sen. Lindsay Graham's question to Attorney General Eric Holder last Wednesday regarding enemy combatants caught on the battle field being tried in civilian courts disingenuous and political grandstanding?

First, the Bush Administration transferred enemy combatants Ali al-Marri and Jose Padilla to the civilian court system where Padilla was indicted and convicted in Miami. Second, KSM and some other 9/11 planners were not caught on "the battlefield." They were captured by the FBI in Pakistan. If Holder is to be criticized it should be for not recalling the al-Marri and Padilla situations (where was his crack staff). Of course had Bush, Graham and their fellow Republicans declared a war when they controlled Congress and included Pakistan in that declaration, his question would have more relevance. Or does Graham get to designate battlefield locations as one of his privileges for replacing Strom Thurmond and speaking well of him?

Perry Bacon Jr.: I'm going to kind of talk around your question and say I find this Gitmo political question interesting. Republicans on the Hill seem to think most people in the U.S don't care about closing the prison as much as they care about not having trials/imprisonment of alleged terrorists in their neighborhoods. I wonder if this is true.


Rockville: "I just don't think Dems want to reconciliation."

But some say they can pass with 51 votes and not use reconciliation.

Who is right?

(Please excuse me on this one, but I can not get anyone else to answer the question and it seems important.)

Perry Bacon Jr.: This is a great look at this question from John Dickerson, a former colleague who now works at Slate.

"If Reid can clear that hurdle and get the bill into play, he'll face another big 60-vote test to stop all the debate and move to a final vote. At this point, as a political matter the final vote to end a filibuster is no different than the vote for final passage. (So, 60 is the new 50. Technically, 60 is the new 51, since a bill needs 51 votes to pass, but Reid needs only 50 senators. He can rely on Joe Biden, as president of the Senate, to break any tie votes.)

At this point, the John Kerry rule kicks in. During the 2004 presidential campaign, the Democratic presidential candidate was lampooned for saying he voted in favor of funding for the Iraq war before he voted against it. Kerry had a perfectly sound procedural rationale for his vote, but it didn't matter. He looked like a man with no convictions.

In the health care debate, the Kerry precedent plays out this way: If a senator votes to allow debate on the bill, but then against the bill itself, he risks looking like a hypocrite. I oppose the health care bill for reasons X and Y and therefore will not be voting for it, he can say. Yet when given the chance to actually do something about stopping a piece of legislation I oppose—by supporting a filibuster to block it—I chose not to."


Silver Spring, Md.: Hi, Thanks for taking questions. I'm a bit confused about the continued need for 60 votes in the Senate. I thought once 60 votes had been obtained to bring the bill to the floor it only requires a simple majority to pass it, but news reports seem to indicate that 60 votes will be needed again later. What are the hurdles that remain for passage/failure (i.e. how many times will there be a vote and how many votes are needed at the remaining stages)?

Perry Bacon Jr.: See above.


Perry Bacon Jr.: Thanks for the chat folks. Have a great week.



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