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By Jay Cost

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Tomorrow's Anticlimax in the Senate

The media is stirring up drama regarding tomorrow's vote - namely, they are speculating whether Landrieu and Lincoln will vote with Reid to start debate.

Of course they will. Three big reasons:

(a) "Keep the Ball Rolling". Tomorrow's vote - like all of the votes to date - is a process vote, meaning that Obama and the leadership can argue, "Vote yea to keep the process going. We can improve the bill later if you stick with us." Every vote they have won to date has, I think, been won based on this argument - and it should carry the day tomorrow. The problem comes with the last vote, i.e. to end the process and enact the law. You cannot argue to keep the process going on the final vote!

(b) No Harm For Yea. GOP candidates could conceivably tie tomorrow's vote to a vote for health care, but that's a very specious argument to make. I would guess that local newspapers and television outlets would call them out on it. Plus, if (for instance) Blanche Lincoln votes yea tomorrow but ultimately votes against closing debate - those ads would be very ineffective. What's more, there is an easy rejoinder, which we are already hearing: "I voted to open debate. What's so bad about debate?"

(c) Lots of Harm for Nay. A nay vote would gravely damage prospects for reform. And legislators on the Democratic side do not want to kill reform unless/until they absolutely have to, i.e. voting in favor on a particular item would seriously hurt their political careers. As noted above, a yea vote tomorrow will not damage anybody's political prospects. A nay vote, on the other hand, would make that senator a pariah in the broader party (the interest groups, activists, and enthusiasts on the Democratic side) - which, I hasten to add, is the primary funding source for all of these members. Lieberman's Independent Democrat status makes him basically half a Dem and half a GOPer. He's voting yea, which should tell you all you need to know.

Final point. The fact that these Democratic moderates are actually spending time "pondering" whether to vote against starting debate is a sign that they are very skittish about this bill. My guess is that this deliberation is just a dog and pony show for the folks back home - what's noteworthy is that these senators feel they must do this. The reason why is pretty clear. Take the nationwide net approval/disapproval of this bill, then subtract 10 to 20 points. That will put you in striking distance of what the voters in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Nebraska think of it. Then remember that Blanche Lincoln is up for reelection next year, Ben Nelson is up in three years, and Mary Landrieu has yet to develop much electoral security in her increasingly Republican state. She's up in 2014 - and if Obama wins reelection, she would have to stand before the voters of Louisiana in one of the roughest macro environments around (incumbent party's second midterm).

If I had to bet, I'd say the bill has maybe 54-56 votes in the Senate - with Bayh, Landrieu, Lieberman, Lincoln, Nelson, and Pryor all at least a little iffy. Losing Olympia Snowe between the Senate Finance Committee and the floor is a big deal - ideologically, she and Susan Collins are indistinguishable from Nelson. Also, these moderate Democrats come from generally Republican states [except Lieberman, who is going to need every Republican vote he can muster in 2012], and having Snowe on board gave them bipartisan cover that they do not have anymore. Liberals have been complaining about "President Snowe" for some time, but her support was a big deal. A few weeks ago, the story supposedly went that President Obama wanted Harry Reid to pursue Snowe's trigger idea. I'm not sure I believe that, frankly (it seemed a bit like a C/Y/A ploy by the White House) - but if it was true, then this is why. Keeping Snowe on board guarantees at least 61 votes. Losing Snowe might cost the Democrats up to six more senators.

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-Jay Cost