The Congressional Spectator

Democrats Scramble to Save Obamacare

218 is the new 60.

By 1.25.10

Not quite ready to put comprehensive health care legislation out to pasture, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Pelosi met over the weekend to work out possible ways to get it done in the wake of Scott Brown's election in Massachusetts, according to the Politico.

With Pelosi having said publicly that she lacks votes to pass the Senate bill without big changes -- at least for now -- one of the few options they have remaining would be for the House and Senate to negotiate changes, which would be put in a separate bill that could pass the House and then clear the Senate with 51 votes using reconciliation. But that still remains a long shot, for a number of reasons.

When the health care bill passed the House the first time around, it did so with 220 votes -- giving Pelosi just two votes to spare. With Republican Rep. Joseph Cao no longer willing to vote for the bill given the weaker abortion language and Rep. Robert Wexler having retired in the middle of his term (a special election to replace him won't happen until April), Pelosi is down to 218.

Even without the current situation in Massachusetts, Pelosi was going to have problems convincing Rep. Bart Stupak and his band of pro-life Democrats to vote for a bill that contained the Senate's weaker abortion language. While there stood an outside chance of working out a further compromise on abortion before Brown's election, they would be unable to do so now, because changes to the abortion language would not be possible under the reconciliation process, which can only be used for tax and spending matters. So how large a contingent are the Stupak Democrats? Well, there were 41 Democrats who voted for the Stupak amendment in November and then went on to vote for the actual bill. Of those, 15 Democrats specifically cited the strict language on federal funding for abortion in press releases issued to explain their votes. And as recently as last week, Stupak told the Weekly Standard that there were still "at least 10 to 12" Democrats who voted for the original bill who would vote "no" if his abortion language were not included.

Liberal commentators have been arguing that because the House and Senate have already voted for health care bills, Democrats will be attacked no matter what -- and if they don't pass anything, they'll also be alienating their voters, who will stay home in November, too fed up with a useless party. But while this may be true for the Democratic Party in the general sense, it isn't true for specific members. The first time around, 39 Democrats voted against the bill -- they could simply maintain their votes without being accused of being flip-floppers. And the Stupak Democrats could switch to opposition to the final version of the bill and argue that they were consistent in opposing any bill that had taxpayer funding for abortion. Despite what liberal commentators would like us to believe, Public Policy Polling -- a Democratic firm -- looked at the polling in a few conservative districts held by Democrats, and found those who voted against the health care bill are doing much better among their potential Republican challengers. As PPP noted, "voting against health care was the best vote politically in tough districts." 

One thing that was clear from the outcome in Massachusetts was that voters -- particularly independents -- were upset with the backroom deal making and Democratic efforts to ram health care legislation through in an overtly partisan manner. If Democrats attempt the reconciliation route, it would be the most partisan possible way to ram a bill through -- one of the reasons Democrats avoided it last year and struggled to win 60 votes. And on top of that, they'd be using the process to pass another backroom deal -- the $60 billion bribe to unions that exempts them for several years from the "Cadillac tax" on health plans that would still be paid by Americans who are non-union workers.

Even assuming Pelosi could win over House liberals by cutting a backroom deal with Reid that could pass through the Senate using reconciliation rules, she'd still have to keep keep all of the Stupak Democrats who voted for the bill last time on board without being able to do anything for them on abortion language and avoid the defection of any other moderates who were spooked by what happened in Massachusetts. For every member she loses, she would have to convince one of the 39 Democrats who felt the need to vote against the bill the first time around, to switch his or her vote to "yes." So, is it theoretically possible that Pelosi could still get 218 of her members to cave and support shoving this unpopular health care bill down our throats? Yes. But as you can see, it's highly unlikely.

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Philip Klein is The American Spectator's Washington correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter at: