The Live Fix: Senate health-care reform bill nears passage

Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 21, 2009; 11:00 AM

This Monday, The Fix goes live, as Chris Cillizza discusses the latest news about Congress, the Obama administration, upcoming elections and all the latest political news.

A transcript follows.

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Chris Cillizza: Good morning everyone. I managed to tunnel out from the Fix homestead this morning to get coffee -- one of the first ventures into the winter wonderland that is DC since snopocalypse hit on Saturday.

Given that all of Washington was snowed it, it was nice of the Senate to give us political nerds -- er, junkies -- something to watch on television.

The health care bill passed the cloture hurdle early this morning, meaning that it is now formally on the Senate floor and is almost certainly headed to passage on Christmas eve.

I just posted my winners and losers from the Senate health care debate on the Fix so make sure to check those out.

With that business out of the way, let's get to your questions.


San Diego: What's the rush passing this healthcare bill during a snow storm in the middle of the night? Have the Democrats finally decided to slow no debate? If the economy hasn't improved AND insurance premiums continue to rise, won't the Republicans make political hay in 2010-2012?

Chris Cillizza: I think the "rush" is that the bill had to get onto the floor as soon as possible so that a vote could happen before Christmas day.

Remember that the Senate is a chamber full of arcane procedures and the Republicans are nearly certain to use every tool at their disposal to slow down the proceedings as much as they can.

The concern of the White House and among Democratic strategists was that if Senators went home for the holidays and didn't return until after the New Year, momentum would have been hopelessly lost for the legislation.

So, they got it passed. Now, whether it helps them or hurts them politically remains to be seen.


San Diego: Will there be another Live Fix on Friday? Not on Christmas, sorry.

Chris Cillizza: Have to celebrate Christmas with Fix Jr -- his first! No chat. Will be back the following Friday though...


Healthcare and the NFL: Is the healthcare reform bill (and other large pieces of legislation) like the NFL in that winning (or passing a bill) makes it all good?

Chris Cillizza: I think the White House is hoping so.

Yesterday on a slew of talk shows, White House senior adviser David Axelrod kept arguing that the public opposition to the bill would fade once it began to be implemented and all of the boogeymen about the legislation turned out to not materialize.

That's clearly a real possibility. But, remember that public perception is not typically subject to wild swings -- barring some sort of huge event.

The public has been souring on this bill for several months. Is a signing ceremony at the White House a big enough event to force people to take a second look at their concerns about the bill?

Not totally sure.


Arlington, Va: Sorry to hear the bad news. I hear you are going to replace Angus Phillips and become the Post's new outdoor columnist. First assignment a week duck hunting in LA with the Duck Commanders. Could happen to a nicer guy.

You might want to channel Ned Beatty and Burt Reynolds!

Chris Cillizza: I am?

I am a somewhat odd choice given that a) I have never been fishing b) I have never been camping and c) any time I spend in the wilderness resembles Michael Scott of the "The Office". (I am currently cutting my pants into shorts to make myself a hat.)


St. Paul : Hi Chris -- Thanks for taking questions today. What do you think made vulnerable Democratic senators (Blanche Lincoln, for example) go along with the rest of the majority despite the risk to their seats come 2010?

Chris Cillizza: Good question.

I think the White House made the case to people like Lincoln and Michael Bennet of Colorado that whether they voted for the bill or not, Republicans would bash them as handmaidens of the White House.

So, the argument went, why not be part of voting FOR something, of producing action that can be taken back and sold to an electorate skeptical about Washington's ability to get anything done.

As I noted in an answer above, I think the counter argument -- Lincoln and Bennet (and other Democrats) voted for a bill that the American people neither wants nor thinks will affect positive change -- is equally strong.

Which argument wins out? That will be what the next 11 months or so will tell us. Expect this vote to be a major point of contention between the two parties in next year's midterms.


New York: Assuming we get to a final health care vote in both the House and Senate post-conference, do you think Joseph Cao will be the only Republican vote in the House? Senate Republicans have already voted in lockstep, do you think any Republicans might vote for final passage?

Lastly, are there any perils for Republicans in having tried to block this every step of the way? Senator Byrd always mentions his opposition to civil rights has one of his greatest regrets in life.

Chris Cillizza: Interesting.

I think there is a possibility that other Republicans in the House vote for the final measure although it's not terribly likely given the unanimous (or near unanimous) opposition from the GOP so far.

The most likely Republican might be Rep. Mike Castle who is running for the Senate in the decidedly Democratic state of Delaware in 2010.

Illinois Rep. Mark Kirk might want to vote for the bill -- it would help burnish his moderate credentials for his own Senate bid next November -- but almost certainly won't do so out of fear that it would galvanize conservatives behind Patrick Hughes who is challenging him in the Feb. 2 primary.

On the Senate side, I would bet Sen. Olympia Snowe is the only possibility. Remember that Snowe voted for the bill out of the Senate Finance Committee -- suggesting that she wants to cast a vote for something. There will be considerable pressure on her to stay united with her Republican colleagues, however.


Congratulations are in order: The Failed Obama Administration (TM) has brought this big ugly baby into the world. Now we know who to see when it starts dripping Stay-Puft marshmallow goo all over our doctors...

Chris Cillizza: Can you trademark something like that? I am currently trying to TM my life motto: "Can't someone else do it"? (With apologies to Homer Simpson's bid for Springfield Sanitation Commissioner.)


RE: San Diego: The rush is because doing nothing now is worse than compromising. Consider that the US healthcare bill was 5.2% of GDP in 1960, 9.1% by 1980, 12.3% in 1990, 16.2% in 2007 and 16.6% in 2008 -- over 4 times defense spending. At its current 6.1% annual growth rate, healthcare will consume over 20% by 2018.

Unabated healthcare spending is like an abyss draining money from other sectors of the economy and is fueled by provider incentives to increase services and charges, industry inefficiencies, fraud and abuse, and by patients' demands for more costly services (e.g., in vitro fertilization). Americans' lifestyle habits/choices affect healthcare costs too (e.g., eating healthier diets, wearing seatbelts and eliminating smoking lower costs). Without significant changes, which the reforms are aimed at doing, Healthcare spending will continue eroding the profits of companies providing employee health benefits and personal disposable income of workers (e.g., healthcare costs are increasing 3 times faster than wages). Doing nothing now is a bad option.

Chris Cillizza: This comment used the words "unabated" and "abyss" in the same sentence.

That is grandiloquent and laudatory.


re: San Diego: "...if Senators went home for the holidays and didn't return until after the New Year, momentum would have been hopelessly lost for the legislation." Isn't the real concern that lobbyist, activists, and God forbid, voters would have time to influence their Senators to change or vote against the bill if it was not passed before they went home for Christmas? The WH is afraid of a repeat of the August recess full of angry townhall meetings.

Chris Cillizza: Absolutely that was part of the calculation. If Members went home, got some angry phone calls etc. from constituents, there was a fear that they would come back far less willing to cast what is without question a difficult vote.


Princeton, NJ: What's the rush? Only 125 people die and 2,000 go bankrupt every day because they don't have decent health insurance (Harvard Medical School).

What's the rush?

Chris Cillizza: A Princeton person cites Harvard! It's a Christmas miracle!


New York City: Hi, Chris:

These "chats" are supposed to be where WaPo reporters (btw, do you consider yourself a reporter or a blogger...or both?) drop their pretensions of impartiality and expose their inner heart of hearts (without surgery!)

So...what do YOU think about the health care legislation before Congress? Are YOU in favor it? Do you think it will help or hurt YOUR family? Do YOU think the whole thing should be dropped?

Chris Cillizza: 1. I am replogger.

2. I think CAPITALIZATION for emphasis is AWESOME. Almost as awesome as EMOTICONS ;)


Atlanta, GA: I read Milbank's column about the bad blood on the last day of Senate debate, and loved the picture he painted of Byrd casting his vote with a raised fist in effect saying "F You" to Coburn, et al. Why is that not actually a photo plastered on the front page?? That's CLASSIC stuff! In the dead of a blizzard an ailing Senator casts a decisive vote??? Now THAT's democracy!

Chris Cillizza: Would highly recommend Dana's column to folks looking for a little inside baseball on how the vote went down.

And, yes, Byrd making it through inclement weather to b the 60th vote did have a little "Willis Reed is coming out of the tunnel!" feel to it.


Arlington, Va.: Google Duck Commanders! Be scared very scared.

You be a Sarah Palin loving Dick Cheney worshipping far right Republican for the New Year.

Fox will finally have a cohost for Sean Hannity

Chris Cillizza: I can safely say I don't understand one word in this comment. Not one.


Crestwood, NY : Do you see any possibility, under any reasonable scenario, where the Senate might reform itself? This undemocratic constitutional mistake has turned into a joke of self-parody. It would seem that the attention centered on the appalling way they do business these days has become far more significant than this one bill, as huge as it is. Historically, except for the fight for civil rights, I don't believe that the 60 vote nonsense has been used this relentlessly and routinely until this group. Is there any appreciation in that body for how disgraced they have become in the eyes of the public, and any appetite for doing something about it?

Chris Cillizza: Um, no.

Whether people like it or not (and most people neither like nor understand how the Senate works), the rules are the rules.

While they can be ridiculous and frustrating in terms of getting the votes needed to pass major pieces of legislation, I see no scenario by which the majority tries to change the rules of the road for fear that when the political pendulum swings back and they are no longer in control of the chamber those same rules will be used against them.


Seattle, WA: Fixinator,

I have to disagree about Sen. Tom Coburn being a winner after this, unless he wanted to be known as "The Obstructionator". It was only a blip on the radar last week and people are already forgetting about it.

I'd replace his winner slot with Al Franken for basically telling Joe Lieberman to "shut his pie hole". Unless Harry Reid kicks Joe out of his office and his chairmanship, Al will be the only Democrat to punish the Junior Senator from the Nutmeg State.

Chris Cillizza: Fair enough.

I know Coburn rubbed people the wrong way during this debate but I can tell you that inside the Senate Democratic caucus he became a feared figure for his mastery of parliamentary procedure and ability to slow-walk the bill.


Boston: If Bill Halter defeats Blanche Lincoln in the Dem primary, do you think that he will have a better chance to hold the seat, given that he seems more satisfactory to the liberals and he doesn't have the baggage of contentious votes that could give ammunition to the Republicans?

Chris Cillizza: I don't. Arkansas is a very conservative state (President Obama got just 39 percent of the vote there in 2008) and nominating someone who won the Democratic nomination by running to the left of Blanche Lincoln would not be smart politics.

I think liberals -- in Arkansas and nationally -- are going to need to make peace with the fact that Lincoln is the best chance they have to keep the seat in Democratic hands.

No matter what, Lincoln is in for a VERY tough re-election race next fall. Polling suggests voters are badly divided about her efficacy in the Senate and she is running neck and neck with far lesser known Republicans like state Sen. Gilbert Baker.


Harrisburg, Pa.: I fear I have come across a leading economic indicator that we may be in far more serious trouble than we thought. I went to my Starbucks, and they have informed me that they are out of the Caramel Latte coffees---and they don't think they will ever get them back. I fear the housing market and the banking system will fall behind them. What can we do?

Chris Cillizza: Are you kidding me? Is this some sort of sick joke? It better be. If not, Christmas is officially called off -- by me.


Evanston, Illinois: Did the fix get invited to the White House Christmas Party or were you shunned like Milbank?

Chris Cillizza: I was invited. I didn't see Dana protesting but did watch the (hilarious) video.


Athen, Georgia: Last night I was reading an account of the senate fight in the fifties when Johnson passed the first civil rights bill. He had to strip everything but voting rights out of the bill to get it thru, and the liberals were outraged, telling him he should kill the bill as it wasn't worth passing any more. Good thing he didn't take their advice, and it was so weird reading all the past history like it could be in today's paper talking about health care.

Chris Cillizza: Hope you were reading in Robert Caro's "Master of the Senate" -- the single best book about how the Senate works (and why) out there.

Looking for a late Christmas present? Buy it and the two previous books in Caro's sprawling LBJ biography for your own favorite political nerd. Just fascinating stuff.


Minneapolis: Assuming Health Care Reform makes it through conference & is signed into law, what are the chances the WH gets Congress to take up anything significant next year? Will Repubs be more or less (if possible) willing to get something done in an election year?

Chris Cillizza: Is there a number less than zero?

In our winners and losers column in the Fix, I noted that "cap and trade" legislation is a loser because there is little chance that the Senate will take up another hugely controversial bill in the run-up to 2010.

Things can always change -- and often do -- but as of today I wouldn't be holding my breath for a whirlwind of major legislative activity in 2010.


Philadelphia, PA: "The public has been souring on this bill for several months. Is a signing ceremony at the White House a big enough event to force people to take a second look at their concerns about the bill?"

Is there an ounce of evidence that the "public" has any idea what's in the bill or what the things in the bill mean for them personally or us collectively?

Aren't there some areas, some issues that are truly too complex and that require us to place some trust in people who have expertise?

Are there more than 100 people in the country with the public health policy and overall economic knowledge and experience to take their best shot at this?

And haven't the vast majority of those people expressed degrees of approval?

There are lots of initiatives that seem unpopular at first but become accepted once people understand them. Change management is a real thing requiring real skills. If the White House puts change management into practice, they'll be fine.

Chris Cillizza: Interesting point.


Fairfax, Va.: Paul Krugman stated in his NYT column today that more than two-thirds of bills before the U. S. Senate are now filibustered by the Republican minority, much higher than the 1960's when the filibuster was used to stall Civil Rights legislation. Evidently, there are ways to remove this super majority requirement and make it possible to have an honest debate on climate control and other major legislation. After the logjam on health care, have Senate Democrats concluded its time to change the rules?

Chris Cillizza: See my answer above. I am not sure changing the rules is politically tenable.


Chris Cillizza: John McCain on the Senate floor just now:

"I tell the American People, we're going to go around the country we're going to the town hall meetings, we're going to the rotary clubs, we're going to the senior centers to give the message we will not do this. We will not commit generational theft on future generations."


Wilmington, NC: You mentioned the public "souring" on health reform. I suspect that measure is simply a reflection of the tone of the coverage, rather than an informed opinion. Every conversation I have heard on health reform has been notably misinformed or, at best, uninformed. Seriously, the state of public understanding of the issue and its proposed legislation is a cosmic joke. Do you believe our news media has performed well in the aggregate in informing us on this matter? Do you know of any polling data that might contradict my sense of the utter cluelessness of pretty much everyone out here about this policy?

Chris Cillizza: I think the media has done an ok job is trying to explain what is an incredibly complex and wide-ranging bill to the public.

The simple fact is that explaining an overhaul of the health care system in our country in 30 column inches of a 20 minute television broadcast is damn near impossible.

This may be a "learn by doing" situation for the American public. Over the next year, some of the changes in the bill will begin to be felt. Does it leave a positive or negative taste in the mouths of voters.

Sidenote: What is a "negative taste"?


Williamsburg, Va.: Many talk about how the Democrats might be in trouble in 2010/2012 since most of the health bill goes into effect in 2014. But the ban on pre-existing conditions exclusions for children goes into effect immediately.

Don't the ads practically write themselves? "My beautiful child got the transplant she needed because insurance companies had to cover her. Senator GOP voted against this".

Chris Cillizza: I can see that ad.

I can also see an ad that reads like this: "Senator X voted for a bill that has raised your taxes but doesn't do much else. Tell Senator X that you are sick of Washington ignoring the will of the American public."

Again, I think we will see ads of both sorts in the coming months. And, again, I am genuinely uncertain which message will prove more effective.


Calendar Math: Psst... One week after Christmas is New Year's day. Are you planning on working/hosting a chat that day, or watching bowl games in your zubas? The homeless man's Bill Simmons would choose the latter. Yes, sorry, no chat next Friday either. We'll reschedule for another day next week.

Chris Cillizza: EGADS!

Yes, I am off for two weeks.

And, TERRIFIC and seamless "homeless man's Bill Simmons" reference.

My New Year's resolution in 2010: Finally get Bill Simmons to refer to me as the "homeless man's Bill Simmons". Hope spring eternal.


RE: Caro: Since you brought him up - when is he going to publish the next chapter of the LBJ opus?

Chris Cillizza: I wish I knew. Check out this interview with him in Esquire earlier this month:


Lincoln Park: What will be targeted towards Maine in the conference bill? Will there be any retribution towards Maine because of Snowe and Collins flirting with signing onto the HCR bill but then spurning the outreach and concessions?

And what will be the retribution to Coburn and Oklahoma for ruining Christmas for Senators. Will those Senators who cannot get home for Christmas punish the mad doctor from Oklahoma?

Chris Cillizza: I think the White House will continue to do everything they can -- within reason -- to get at least one Republican Senator on board with final passage although that may be a long shot.

As I said above, Sen. Olympia Snowe is considered the most likely so look to see if the conference bill carries a sweetener or two for Maine.


RE: McCain: You list McCain as a winner this morning. Historically, his power base was the DC media that loved to hold him up as the arbiter of all that was good and holy about bipartisanship. Is that still the case? It seems like he's traded those chips in for the traditional Republican base over the last two years.

Chris Cillizza: Not sure about that.

McCain was never and isn't today a huge favorite in conservative Republican circles.

He never won significant swaths of those voters in the 2008 primary process until there was no serious candidate running against him anymore.

And, my thinking in making McCain a winner was to acknowledge that he asserted himself in a major way as a face of the opposition to the health care bill -- a sign, perhaps, that the feisty and combative McCain has re-emerged.


Austin, TX: re: Cap & Trade being dead...

Why is it that Congress is so afraid to take on another significant issue in 2010? Polls show that the public thinks Congress, generally speaking, is doing a lousy job. I would bet that a substantial amount of that low rating comes from Congress's unwillingness to get meaningful legislation passed.

Chris Cillizza: Whether it's true or not, Members of Congress seem to believe that the closer a vote is taken to the election, the better chance it has of stirring up public anger and costing them their jobs.

Don't disagree with the poll numbers you cite, however.


Evanston, IL: Just a comment - have you noticed that our little town is the Fix capital of the Midwest? Two citizens posting today, at least. Maybe more. Why not host a chat from one of our fine coffee establishments?

Chris Cillizza: Northwestern loves the Fix! Printing up the bumper stickers now.


DC: Chris,

I'm a filibuster hater. It's extra-constitutional, it's anti-democratic, it gives a minority incredible power, and it makes it nearly impossible to pass non-budget legislation. Without the filibuster, health care legislation would have been passed by the end of the Summer. What I don't understand is WHY there hasn't been more discussion from Democrats in the Senate about the nuclear option--getting rid of the filibuster.

If nothing else, it's a good political strategy. When the Republicans considered the nuclear option over judicial nominations, the end result was a compromise where virtually all of Bush's judicial nominees were confirmed to the bench. Why don't Democrats throw out the idea and see where it takes them?

Chris Cillizza: See my answer(s) above on changing Senate rules.

Also, I love the phrase "filibuster hater" and "extra constitutional".


Offseason Fix(ing): Now that Coach Fix is done with her formal coaching season and has more time on her hands, has she focused her coaching energies on Mr. Fix? If so, what are her off-season goals for you?

Chris Cillizza: 1. More hanging of Christmas tree lights

2. Less consumption of expensive coffee drinks


Washington, DC: I don't think that a proper response to the low approval ratings of the health care bill is "most people are just too stupid and/or uneducated about this bill, so their views don't matter." Sorry, but every citizen in this country gets a vote, regardless of their IQ or their education level.

If the bill is unpopular, it's because most voters ARE smart enough, educated enough, and cynical enough, to be worried about costs increasing, not decreasing, and their quality of care decreasing. They're not stupid, they're just skeptical.

Chris Cillizza: Good thought.


Austin, Tex.: 'Fess up. Looking at your picture, I think you're really Craig Finn from The Hold Steady.

Skipping past the (admittedly more interesting) primaries, does Kinky Friedman's withdrawal from the Governor's race have any impact at all?

FYI, what's particularly interesting is that the position he's now running for, Agriculture Commissioner, actually has legal requirements for the job...unlike Governor. Irony alert!

Chris Cillizza: WHOAH. That is awesome. People always tell me I look like Chris Klein, which, of course, makes me think of the character he played in "Election" -- dumb, popular jock.

I may be dumb but I have never been mistaken for popular or a jock.

As for the Kinkster, I was somewhat disappointed that he decided not to run for governor again. Ag Commissioner????

Seriously though, I think him not being in the race probably only matters if Gov. Rick Perry wins the Republican primary on March 2. If Perry is the GOP nominee, then Houston mayor Bill White will be able to consolidate the anti-Perry vote behind his candidacy instead of seeing it fractured in a million different directions ala Texas 2006.


Ellicott City, MD: Was this past vote the "highest hurdle" for Congress to pass some form of health care legislation? I had thought the upcoming reconciled bill would be harder to pass.

Chris Cillizza: I think that depends on what happens in the conference committee. What gets added to the bill (if anything)? What gets subtracted (if anything)?

What this vote did is give the legislation momentum, which, in politics and in sports, is a critical component for success.


Paris, Texas: Chris, what do you see as the final end to Sarah Palin's long and dubious career? Will she give birth to octuplets?

Chris Cillizza: Just fulfilling the "one Palin question in every Live Fix chat" quote.

And, I learned long ago not to predict what's next for Sarah Palin. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me fifteen time, shame on me.


San Diego: Merry Christmas to you, Mrs. Fix and little Charlie. Don't you wish you were back in sunny California? Seriously though thanks for providing us a forum to discuss politics. Enjoy your holiday break and come back rested and ready to take on the midterms!

Chris Cillizza: I spend most of my time wishing I was in California. That was especially true this weekend, which consisted of me switching back and forth between shoveling snow and laying on the couch lamenting how much I hated shoveling snow.

And, thanks for the holiday wishes. I plan on resting and relaxing -- as best as I know how -- top get ready for the midterms!


Chris Cillizza: And that's a wrap!

Thanks for joining a special Monday edition of the "Live Fix". We'll be back in two Fridays with the same mix of politics, music, coffee and field hockey that you love (like?).

In the meantime, make sure to check out "The Fix" regularly on the blog ( and Twitter (

Have a GREAT holiday. And, when we meet again, it will be an election year!!!!


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