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Don't Expect The House To Kill The Senate Bill

Don't Expect The House To Kill The Senate Bill

By Sean Trende - December 22, 2009

Both sides of the blogosphere are lately consumed with trying to figure out how the Senate health care bill might still be derailed. Mainstream news outlets are joining in, trying to keep the drama from the health care debate (and accompanying pageview spike) going by publishing stories with ominous titles like "Health Plans On A Collision Course." In particular, there's been speculation that the House might kill Obamacare. On paper, this is true; indeed on paper the House probably should kill the Senate bill. But in reality, this seems exceedingly unlikely.

I will admit that predicting the future has proven difficult on this bill. In particular, if you had told most pundits, including yours truly, that Senator Nelson of Nebraska would accept the compromise that pushed the bill past 60 votes, those pundits, including yours truly, probably would have laughed at you. The vote is completely at odds with Nelson's history as a politician - he was elected Governor of Nebraska in 1990 by running to the right of incumbent Republican Governor Kay Orr, and spent his time in office by doing very un-Democratic things, even for a conservative Democrat, like cutting taxes and trimming worker's compensation.

Take this personal background, add in the fact that Nelson probably holds the reddest Senate seat in the country for a Democrat by an order of magnitude (when looking at a state top-to-bottom), toss in the fact that the bill probably has a 20-30% favorability rating in Nebraska, and the vote is all-but inexplicable on paper. It is almost a declaration of retirement for the Senator. In the end, though, I think this seeming irrationality holds the key to understanding why the bill is exceedingly unlikely to fail.

Let's start by examining the arguments for why the Senate bill might fail in the House. In early November, the House barely passed its version of ObamaCare, 220-215. This, at least in theory, provides the baseline for the bill going forward. One Republican, Jospeh Cao (whose district leans Democratic by about 25 points) reportedly said that he would not be the deciding vote for the bill, so realistically we're dealing with a 219-216 split.

On January 3, Representative Robert Wexler will resign, and his seat won't be filled for another four months. That puts the bill at 218-216. Rep. Neil Abercrombie will be resigning sometime in January to pursue his run for Governor, but has committed to staying until this bill passes.

If there's a tie vote on a bill, it dies. So if Democrats lose one vote, the bill dies.

On paper, this should almost certainly happen. Remember, the House is a fundamentally different institution than the Senate. People focus on the relative conservatism of the Senate (though this isn't, as some have argued, intrinsic to the Senate; in the 1960s it was the more liberal institution) and its arcane procedural maneuvers like the filibuster and holds. But it is also less ideologically diverse.

This is because House seats are relatively small when compared to Senate seats and are reconfigured once every decade (twice if you live in Texas and Georgia), so it's easier to end up with a district that is almost all black, or heavily liberal, or really, really conservative. In addition to your standard-issue Republicans and Democrats, the House has true libertarians, New Deal Democrats, former black panthers, and Zell Miller conservatives. The Senate has none of these. That means that you actually have more interests to satisfy in the House than you do in the Senate.

With that background, let's start with John McCormack's vote count from The Weekly Standard. He notes that last November House Majority Whip James Clyburn stated that Democrats were 6-to-8 votes shy of passage without Stupak language prohibiting federal funding of abortions. That language no longer exists in the Senate version.

Certainly Stupak won't be voting for a Stupak-less health care bill. While I don't really think everyone on McCormack's list of members who signed the letter to Pelosi pledging to oppose a Stupak-less bill is a deep enough prolifer to kill the bill, Stupak, Daniel Lipinski, Paul Kanjorski, Dale Kildee, and probably Solomon Ortiz and James Oberstar (and maybe Murtha) all have histories that make them unlikely converts. These Democrats are the vestiges of the white ethnic arm of the New Deal coalition in Congress; there aren't enough left of these voters left to send anyone fitting that description to the Senate (except supposedly Casey) but you can still find them in the House.

The bill should therefore already be dead before we even start talking about the left. There we have 60 House Democrats who previously signed a letter to Nancy Pelosi pledging to vote against a bill without a public option, again missing from the bill. Remember, in the Senate there were three Democrats who were wavering on a bill that didn't include a public option: Sanders, Feingold and Burris. We can look at Keith Poole's ideological rankings of Congress (for those who want me to be precise, I'm using DW-NOMINATE common-space scores), and see that in the 110th Congress (they haven't done the 111th yet), Feingold and Sanders are the two most liberal Democrats.

This is where things get interesting. There are two House Democrats to Feingold's left (Barbara Lee and John Conyers) and there are forty-one House Democrats to Bernie Sanders' left. This includes most of the members who pledged to vote against a public option-less bill. The balance are mostly just to Sanders' right. Again, the difference between the bodies is crucial here; Berkeley doesn't get a Senate seat, but it gets a House seat; the same is true of Compton, Amherst, Austin, and Greenwich Village.

Given Sanders' and Feingold's obvious discomfort with the bill and the bill's unpopularity on the left, this means that these members are probably at least contemplating a "no" vote. This is probably doubly true of a member like Marcy Kaptur, who pledged to vote against a public option-less, Stupak-less bill.

These are the big-ticket items, and between them we should expect at least one Democrat to break ranks. Indeed, one big reason that the House actually might kill the bill is that the liberals and pro-lifers in the House can find strength in numbers, while those in the Senate can't. There are only two or three theoretically pro-life Democratic Senators: Nelson, Casey and Reid. There are several dozen in the House. And there are only a couple of Senators on the left fringe; there are 41 Representatives to the left of a declared Socialist. No one wanted to be known as the member who killed health care; Reid was able to pick Senators off one-by-one until Nelson was the last man standing; it is harder to do that in the House.

And of course, there are myriad other potential problems. The left wing of the House caucus doesn't like the Nelson language on abortion either, the progressives aren't excited about taxing union health benefits rather than the rich, the Hispanic caucus doesn't like language restricting illegal immigrants' ability to purchase health insurance on the exchanges. Oh, and the bill is about 7-to-8 points less popular than it was in early November.

So why do I think this bill will survive? To begin, very few of the progressives are likely to kill the bill, just as, at the end of the day, Feingold, Sanders and Burris all voted for the bill. The impending retirements of Congressmen Tanner, Gordon, and Baird have probably given Pelosi a few extra votes to play with. Moreover, a public option-less bill gives some of the less conservative "noes" some cover to vote yes; Democrats like Adler (NJ-3), Boccieri (OH-16), Davis (AL-07), and Teague (AZ-05) come to mind. This could offset losses among the progressive caucus.

I'm also guessing that there were ten-to-fifteen Democrats who voted "no" who were available for the Speaker if she really needed them, or wanted them badly enough. Given the buy-offs of Senators Nelson, Sanders and Landrieu, it is pretty clear that no price is too high for the leadership and the White House. If Congressman X's life desire is to be King of Zamunda, we can expect to see a pro-US coup there the next day, with Congressman X installed shortly as King. What we saw in the Senate confirms what we already suspect to be true: Most votes in the House and Senate are for sale if the price is high enough (please note that this is not restricted to the Democrats; see House Republicans' handling of the Prescription Drug Benefit).

But at the end of the day, Ben Nelson's vote is the real reason I can't imagine the bill failing in the House. As I noted above, his Senate vote makes little political sense. On paper there is no reason that he should be at "yes." It is a potentially career-ending vote that isn't supported by his constituents, and that, judging by his statements on Stupak and overall voting record, he doesn't either. And unlike Blanche Lincoln, he's not facing a potential primary challenge from the left.

But Democrats seem to have made the collective decision that, for better or for worse, their fate lies with Barack Obama succeeding with his legislative agenda. I think this is a gross miscalculation, but it isn't entirely irrational either. Look at it this way: If nothing gets done in the next year, the Democrats are almost certainly in deep trouble in 2010. If the bill passes and Obama's popularity continues to sag, the Democrats are potentially (probably, in my estimation) in even deeper trouble.

Their only hope for a good outcome is that the bill passes, and Obama somehow convinces the nation over the course of the next year that it was a good thing, that unemployment declines substantially, and that his popularity rises. This isn't particularly likely, but it is the only path that offers some hope of survival for Democrats in marginal seats. To paraphrase Obama, if Obama is unpopular, the Republicans are coming after Democrats either way. Their only hope for Obama to become popular is probably to keep passing things and hope the economy turns around. And Nelson can afford to wait until 2012 for this to happen.

At the end of the day, I think the only way the bill dies is this: Seeing Nelson as weak, Progressives dig in during the conference, win a concession on funding, immigration, or abortion, and convince the leadership to dare Nelson again to be the one who killed health care (I don't think they will do this on the public option, because then they will have to gamble that Nelson, Lieberman, Landrieu and Lincoln all vote for the bill). Nelson might do just that, but given the events of the weekend, I think it's far more like that we'll soon see his face on the coinage of Zamunda.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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