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By Jay Cost

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The Baucus Bill Is a Go...For Now

The Baucus bill is set to pass the Senate Finance Committee today, which will be good for Democrats in helping manage the news cycle. The media will score this a win, even though everybody expected it would pass. Plus, I'm not sure why George Stephanopoulos would have pegged the odds of Snowe voting yea at less than 50%. I did not have a doubt in my mind that she would support it. This is a vote to move the process forward, and thus keep Olympia Snowe in the game. Case in point: Mike Enzi and Chuck Grassley are set to vote no today, which will likely signal their end in determining the course of the legislative process. They'll get their floor votes, the opportunity to offer amendments, and that will probably be that. Snowe's yes vote, on the other hand, purchases for her the right to remain a key player. Snowe is one of those senators who can almost always be counted on to find the political center in the Senate, wherever it may be in real terms, because that is where the action is. Arlen Specter used to be the master at sniffing out the central ground...at least until Joe Sestak forced him to tack to the left.

Still, the Baucus bill is a highly problematic piece of legislation - yesterday's PricewaterhouseCoopers report, sponsored by the American Health Insurance Providers, is a great case in point of the problems it has. I noted last week as regards the Baucus sausage that there was a peculiar left-right coalition aligned in opposition to it. Here's more evidence of that. We have the AHIP set to lobby against the Baucus bill, and ditto the labor unions!

I'd affiliate myself with the sentiments expressed by Patterico here on the PwC/AHIP report. It misses the point entirely to discard the the analysis as political: that's clearly what it is meant to be! If the industry groups that had been playing along with the White House start breaking away, and worse yet start playing politics against reform, that's a net loss for supporters of the reform efforts. Additionally, it's not surprising in the least to see Republicans not embrace the AHIP report. If AHIP is signaling it is going to start moving against the reforms, why not let them take the lead on it? Why affiliate yourselves with the health insurers? You're not going to help them and you're only going to hurt yourselves, considering how unpopular they are.

The challenge that the Democrats faced in the summer remains: can they find a compromise that (a) wins 218 votes in the House; (b) wins 60 votes in the Senate; (c) is not some Frankensteinian monster that scares off the broad middle, which Mickey Kaus has cleverly taken to calling the congressional "id." I didn't have an answer to that question in August, and the Baucus vote does not help me answer it today.

I will say that the Democrats seem highly intent on passing a bill, and leaders are clearly trying to develop a sense of momentum. That's good news for reform efforts. Of course, momentum is only a real thing when we are discussing Newtonian physics. It's simply a metaphor in politics. I think it refers to a sense of urgency and necessity. Their minds are sharp and focused in search of a compromise because the party's reputation is on the line. It needs to get something done. Yet momentum - at least as I have defined it here - does not get around the basic collective action dilemma that this highly diverse political party faces. Are the progressives willing to sacrifice a public option for the sake of the party's reputation? Alternatively, is Blanche Lincoln willing to sacrifice her job by supporting a public option for the sake of the party's reputation? That's the core challenge. One side, possibly both, will have to bend. There are other tensions on how to pay for it, mandates (possibly), and so on.

We might not have an answer to these questions for some time. We certainly are not going to be able to count on reliable updates about the legislative process until final bills are produced, seeing as how the bill drafting is now almost entirely on one side of the aisle and entirely behind the closed doors of leadership offices. It's up to Nancy Pelosi in the House and Harry Reid in the Senate - working in their own offices with fellow Democrats - to find the compromise position that has so far eluded them. I expect reports to be very, very bullish about things, regardless of whether or not they are making real progress. Maybe they will find that common ground; maybe they won't. We'll just have to wait and see.

In fact, the Baucus vote indicates the Democrats' smart strategy of circling the wagons and keeping their disagreements in private (for now). All 13 Senate Finance Democrats voted for it, even though at least three of them - Jay Rockefeller and Ron Wyden on the left and Blanche Lincoln in the center - have real concerns with it. Those were probably votes for the party, and I expect Democrats to (mostly) stick together so long as the wheeling-and-dealing is underway.

-Jay Cost