House and Senate Health Care Reform Bills Mark the Beginning of the Endgame

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is unveiling his health care reform plan after it received passing grades from the Congressional Budget Office. Whether he has the 60 votes he needs to bring the bill to the floor is still an open question, but odds are he’ll have the votes when he needs it, perhaps by this weekend.

Then the fun begins. Senators will debate the bill, offer amendments, vote on those changes, and finally craft a bill. If Senator Reid and his allies play their cards well, they’ll have the 60 votes needed to allow a vote on the legislation. (Yes, before there’s a vote there’s a vote on whether to have a vote – you’ve gotta love democracy). Only then will the Senate make history and pass health care reform.

Of course, what the Senate passes and what becomes law are two different things. Just as passage by the House of Representatives of HR 3962 was only a prelude to what will be the act of drafting the “real” health care reform bill.

Many have tried, but only President Barack Obama, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have gotten this far with health care reform. What they’ve accomplished is historic and Herculean. Whether you support or oppose their bills, respect for their accomplishment is appropriate. But getting this far is not the end. Well, it’s the end of the beginning. And it brings us closer to the beginning of the endgame.

The legislative process involves several stages. In the beginning there’s a lot of sincere questions being asked as lawmakers seek information, float trial balloons, and generally get a lay of the political landscape and the issues. During this phase there are a lot of options on the tables, including the most extreme positions (e.g., do nothing or enact a single payer system).

This phase was also when it became clear that, for the most part, Republicans were as interested in defeating “Obamacare” as they were in reforming the health care system. By publicly declaring so early in the process they would oppose any legislation containing provisions dear to the Democrats, the GOP effectively removed themselves from the deliberations. Why, after all, would Democrats negotiate with a party that had made clear they would oppose anything other than their own proposals?

Of course, Republicans could ask the same question of the Democrats (and do). The difference is that Democrats are in the majority in Congress. So if the two parties go their separate ways, the Democrats could still, under the right circumstances, pass a bill. In other words, it’s their bat and ball, so if the Republicans stalk off the field, the game continues.

In the second legislative phase the House and Senate committees with jurisdiction on health care weighed in. General concepts became legislative language. Lawmaker’s inclinations became public votes. Options feel by the wayside. (This is the phase in which the possibility of enacting a single payer system was formally laid to rest).

What the committees produced generated a lot of concern, anger and raucous  objections. Apparently some folks thought someone in Washington really thought these bills would become law. Nope. What the committees were producing were negotiating positions, not laws. Everyone had their eye on the main battle to come in the fourth phase. They were setting up their arguments, gathering their support for the real showdown.

Before the showdown, however, we have to get through the current phase, phase three. In this portion of our program, ideology and public policy take a back seat to a very practical concern: what needs to be in the bill – and what needs to stay out of the legislation – in order to get enough votes to pass it.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle describes this process as shoveling frogs into a wheelbarrow. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s job: craft a bill that could get 218 members of the House into her wheelbarrow. She succeeded by cobbling together legislation that is an abomination to many of the House Members who voted for it.

Senator Reid’s task: to get 60 Senators into his wheelbarrow. To do that he’s pared back provisions (such as on a government-run plan) in ways that only three weeks ago liberals would have labeled a betrayal (and some still do. Of course, those progressives complaining about the compromises Senator Reid has made tend not be in the Senate. Because liberal Senators understand the process. If they need to accept a weakened public insurance program to help Senator Reid keep 60 frogs in the wheelbarrow, so be it.

Why do liberal House members vote for a bill they consider an abomination and progressive Senators accept compromises that were absolutely unacceptable a few weeks ago? Because this is the phase where it’s about getting something passed, not public policy.

If the Senate passes Senator Reid’s health care reform legislation, the fourth phase begins. A conference committee will be created made up of members of the House and Senate. Their task: to meld together the House and Senate proposals into a single bill for which Speaker Pelosi and Senator Reid can shovel enough frogs into their respective wheelbarrows to pass.

Think about that challenge. A single bill that can get majorities in both chambers. That won’t be easy. The process won’t be pretty. Decisions will be made based on factors outside of health care reform.

Take Senator Joe Lieberman. He’s on record declaring his opposition to a government-run health plan is a matter of conscience. His history makes clear he loves being Chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Keeping the chairmanship he loves may require him to bend his conscience a bit. Yes, who chairs a particular committee has nothing to do with the substance of health care reform. But it has everything to do with the politics of health care reform.

(By the way, I’m not saying Senator Lieberman has been threatened with losing his chairmanship unless he agrees to let health care reform come to a vote in the Senate. But if it turns out he was, no one should be surprised. Hardball is a sport played by both parties. And  the higher the stakes, the harder the ball.)

Given the nature of the issue and the politics, the conference committee will forgo public policy debates and focus on fashioning a compromise that majorities of the frogs – I mean, lawmakers – in each chamber can support. This means what the House passed and what the Senate may pass are now the extremes in the health care reform debate. Compromises, after all, tend to wind up in the middle of two poles. The Congressional leaders making up the conference committee will try to establish a middle ground on which their needed majorities can stand. Their building blocks will be what it takes to get the bill passed. That the result may be messy, perhaps even unworkable is of less concern. There will be time enough to fix those problems.

Getting reform right was for an earlier phase in the process. And by eliminating some of the more extreme ideas, by establishing the boundaries of reform, those phases assured that public policy considerations would have an impact on the final legislation. But that was then. In this final phase of the legislative process it’s is about getting reform. Period.

In short, the health care reform process to date has been fascinating and important, but it’s main purpose has been to define negotiating positions. We’ll see the end of the beginning of health care reform if and when the Senate enacts its version of reform.

Only when the conference committee convenes, however, do we move into the beginning of the endgame, the point where the drafting process of health care reform begins in earnest.

House Health Care Reform Bill: Some Varied Perspectives

One person’s socialism is another’s sellout. At least that’s the way it seems to go when it comes to health care reform. And it certainly must appear that way to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who today unveiled the Affordable Health Care for America Act. HR 3926 blends together provisions from the three House Committees that have produced health care reform legislation: the Ways & Means Committee; the Education & Labor Committee; and the Energy & Commerce Committee. The result is not as liberal as some on the left called for and is too radical for those on the right.

As CBS News reported, those on the left are upset that the bill would create a government-run insurance plan that would be required to negotiate rates with providers much as private carriers do. This angers liberals who want the public health plan to set rates that providers would have to accept, much as is done with Medicare and Medicaid.

Meanwhile, back on the Hill, conservatives attacked the House health care reform bill in no uncertain terms. “It will raise the cost of Americans’ health insurance premiums; it will kill jobs with tax hikes and new mandates, and it will cut seniors’ Medicare benefits,” proclaimed House Minority Leader John Boehner.

Is it socialism? A sellout? A good idea or a bad idea? Most readers of this blog can guess my answers (for those interested, my view of it is at the end of this post). Here’s how others are discussing the legislation:

The National Underwriter does a great job of identifying where some of the controversial provisions in the bill can be found. While the publication is a bit too fixated with the number of pages in the House health care reform bill (1,990), it’s still a good starting point for understanding the legislation. And it points out that the bill does nothing to prevent brokers to sell products within the Exchange, so it offers a bit of a reassuring start, too.

The Congressional Budget Office is highly regarded by lawmakers on both side of the partisan divide for its objective analysis of the budget impact of legislation– unless, of course, they don’t like the analysis. The CBO’s analysis of HR 3926 indicates it will reduce the deficit over the next 10 years by $104 billion, insure 96 percent of non-elderly legal residents in the country (18 million people).  The CBO’s director, Douglas Elmendorf, maintains a blog and summarizes the analysis in his post today. he notes that the findings of the CBO are “subject to substantial uncertainty.”

The Christian Science Monitor’s story reports on the how the liberals may call for a floor vote on a more robust public option than is in the bill in order to put Democratic and Republican members on record as to where they stand on a government-run health plan.

The Associated Press focuses on the CBO’s conclusion that the public option might actually cost consumers more than private coverage. It also notes that while Speaker Pelosi compromised on the powers of the government-run health plan to appease the more moderate members of her caucus, many of those moderates remain concerned about the overall cost.

A BusinessWeek article zeroes in on some of the taxes the House health care reform legislation would impose and how they differ from the taxes likely to be in the Senate reform bill.

Reimbursing doctors for providing end-of-life counseling remains in the House health care reform bill. Given that some conservatives described this provision as creating “death panels,” preserving this element of the bill can be viewed as an act of political courage. As I’ve posted before, the death panel claim was more of a cruel hoax on the American people than an insightful read of the legislation. But the passions and paranoia surrounding the provision was so vociferous, the easy course would have been to simply drop it from the bill – as was done in the Senate. The Oregon Congressman, Earl Blumeauer, who championed inclusion of the counseling provision in the health care reform package, says he was motivated by a talk with a Southern Minister who told him ‘It’s very important for those of us in the clergy that this provision be kept, cos’ we see situations where families don’t get the help they need, and we have to try to counsel them through.”

For those interested in reading the bill, here’s a link to HR 3926 – the Affordable Health Care for America Act. As noted, it’s 1990 pages, but there’s a lot of white space on most of the pages.

My take on the House health care reform bill is that it’s not socialism nor a sellout. It is a politically necessary step down a long road. As regular blog reader Alison noted in her comment on an earlier post concerning Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s efforts to forge health care reform legislation that can muster 60 votes in the Senate, “… if you start off extreme then there is more room for negotiation to where he (Senator Reid) most likely anticipates its going anyway. If you give away the farm at first you have nothing left in your hand to negotiate with. I do not believe he anticipated this to fly at all but rather offers it as a calculated starting point.”

Alison’s point applies equally as well to Speaker Pelosi’s health care reform bill.

Health care reform is a process. First there was the pre-legislation discussion of what health care reform should do. Then there were the debates in various committees in which those intentions were put into bill form. Now the leadership of each chamber are blending the work of their committees into single bills. Next will come a conference committee tasked with combining the two bills that emerge from the Senate and the House of Representatives into a single bill. At each step along the way positions harden, the rhetoric (hard to believe it’s possible) becomes even more shrill, and the compromises more plentiful. But at each stage, the final legislation becomes more clear. After all, if the House Leadership is going to push moderate Democrats to vote for a public option of any kind, a vote those moderates will need to defend at election time, they must believe it is going to be a part of the final reform package. (At least those moderate Democrats hope so).

The Affordable Health Care for America Act will look more like whatever finally emerges from Congress than the bills passed by the three House Committees. But it’s not the last word. The blended Senate bill has been described, but not seen. Both the House and Senate proposals will be evolve. We’re several weeks away from seeing the legislation that will emerge from the conference committee.

The worthiness of the result, as always, will be in the eye of the beholder.