House Health Care Reform Passes, But It’s Far From the Last Word

History was made on November 7th when the House of Representatives passed HR 3962, the Affordable Health Care for America Act. Yes, it was a close vote (220 in favor versus 215 opposed). Yes, only one Republican voted for the bill. Yes, the legislation leaves a lot to be desired. At the end of the day, all that matters is that the legislation passed. President Barack Obama’s health care reform initiative remains alive and is closer to reality than the efforts of his predecessors. Given the complexity and controversy surrounding the issue, not to mention the competing demands of numerous, powerful stakeholders, this is a remarkable achievement.

While historic and remarkable, however, it’s important not to read too much, or too little, into what happened. Consider:

House Passage of Health Care Reform Puts Pressure on the Senate: It’s probably hard for Republicans to understand the importance of health care reform to Democrats. I suppose it’s the equivalent of a tax decrease to the GOP. It’s a defining issue, in the sense that the issue differentiates themselves from the other side. When Republicans controlled the White House and Congress they lowered taxes. They could have made a major push behind health care reform during their years in power, but that’s not where Republicans were willing to invest the political capital in health care reform, not when it could be put behind cutting taxes. Democrats now control the Executive and Legislative branches. And they are investing their political capital where their heart is: health care reform.

Which means if you’re a Democratic Senator you do not want to be the reason health care reform fails. No doubt some members of the Senate were quietly hoping the vote in the House would fall short, letting them off the hook. No such luck. Now it’s up to Senate Democrats to keep the dream of health care reform alive.

HR 3962 is Not on the President’s Desk: Nor is it likely to ever get there.  What the Senate will pass is not likely to look a lot like the Affordable Health Care for America Act, either. The politics in the Senate are far different from that in the House. Consider the idea of the government creating – and maintaining – a health plan to compete with private carriers. Senator Joe Lieberman reiterated his threat to vote against allowing a reform bill containing a government-run plan to come to a vote on the Senate floor, according to the Associated Press. Unless his 60th vote is replaced by a Republican (think Senator Olympia Snowe) Democrats will be unable to overcome a GOP filibuster with Senator Lieberman’s vote.

Of course, as noted in an earlier post, Senator Roland Burris is threatening to prevent a bill without a public insurance plan to come to a vote. So Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has to craft a package that satisfies a diverse and divided caucus (Senator Lieberman is an Independent, but he caucuses with Democrats in order to hold on to his committee chairmanship). Senator Reid has already submitted a proposal to the Congressional Budget Office for review. (That the CBO has yet to issue an analysis is widely taken as evidence the cost of the legislation is higher than Senator Reid is counting on, meaning adjustments will be required). Meaning …

The Senate Will Pass a More Moderate Bill. Whatever Senator Reid puts before the Senate, it will be more moderate than HR 3962. Moderates hold more power in the Senate than they do in the House. Leaving aside Senator Lieberman, passage of health care reform in the Senate will need to satisfy 17 moderate and conservative Democrats. While several of these Senators have already pledged their support to the legislation outlined (but not published yet) by Senator Reid, there’s enough hold-outs to force concessions that will disappoint liberals. Yet those liberals are unlikely to vote against health care reform and accept blame for defeating this core Democratic issue. (Senator Burris is an exception for reasons discussed in the previous post).

When the Senate Acts Will Be When Democrats Have 60 Votes:  Warner Pacific, a general agency based in California, held a series of town hall meetings last week featuring former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. John Nelson, co-CEO of Warner Pacific, interviewed Senator Daschle for roughly 90 minutes and the result were numerous, meaningful insights which I’ll try to write about in future posts. But one observation Senator Daschle offered is relevant here. When it comes to passing legislation, the Senator described the role of the Majority Leader and House Speaker as shoveling frogs onto a wheelbarrow. Why did the House vote on health care reform now instead of waiting to learn more details concerning the Senate legislation? Because Speaker Nancy Pelosi had finally managed to fill the wheelbarrow with at least 218 votes and the longer she waited the more likely it was one of them would jump out.

Speaker Pelosi had a somewhat easier task than the one facing Senator Reid’s. She needed to muster a simple majority and the rules of the House gives her more power than Senator Reid enjoys in the upper house. Plus he needs to shovel a super-majority of 60 frogs into his wheelbarrow.  Once he marshals the votes, however, expect the Senate to act relatively quickly. And don’t expect a vote to be scheduled until Senator Reid is reasonably confident he will prevail. Once that happens, however, the Senate will likely pass their health care reform legislation. Then …

It’s the Conference Committee That Matters: Getting health care reform this far has required a Herculean effort by lawmakers and the White House. And it’s all aimed at getting two bills to a Senate-House conference committee. That’s where the final deals will be struck, losers and winners defined, and the political calculation made as to what single bill can be passed by both chambers of Congress.

For brokers, one of the issues to watch will be related to the health insurance exchange reform will create. In the Senate bill, at least for now, there’s a provision to require those selling products in the exchange to be licensed by their state; the House bill permits unlicensed entities to sell the products. (Ironically, the House approach, which would let DMV clerks sell health insurance in the exchange is supported by some Republicans in the Senate).

The conference committee will determine the taxes implemented to finance reform, what mandates are in place and how they’re enforced, whether there’s a government-run health plan, what cost containment provisions are included, and whether reform addresses malpractice – among other items. In other words, while everything leading to the conference committee is important, it has all been prelude.

To use a baseball analogy, think of the general discussions and hearings earlier this year as Spring Training. The committee votes were the regular season. The vote in the House was a league playoff and now we await the outcome of one more playoff series. All of this leads to the World Series, known as the conference committee. So there’s still more to come. It’s what comes out of the conference committee that, if approved by both the Senate and House, will be signed into law by President Obama. And, assuming something is passed …

Health Care Reform Will Be Worse Than Hoped For, But Better Than Feared:  A  friend from college went to the same law school I did, but a year earlier. As I approached my first day of classes I asked him what to expect. “Worse than you hope it is; better than you fear it will be,” was his reply. (And he was right). Well, the same applies to health care reform.

For example, there’s far less medical cost containment in either the House or Senate bills than most observers believe is necessary to make coverage affordable. But as Senator Daschle noted at the Warner Pacific town hall meeting – and as reader JimK has pointed out – there are some potentially significant cost containment provisions tucked away in the bills. Yes, they call for studies and regulations as opposed to describing details, but perhaps that’s the only way cost containment can make it through the political labyrinth that is Congress. They hold the potential, however, to lead to a significant bending of the cost curve. Of course, for now, it’s only a potential, but still, it’s there.

Consider: When California passed its small group reforms in the early 1990s many brokers and industry insiders feared it would harm the market. Instead that legislation, AB 1672, has been a stabilizing influence that eliminated harmful industry practices without destroying the industry in the process. Yes, there were winners and losers (the dominance of Multiple Employer Trusts in the small group market soon ended), but most brokers and their clients will agree it was a net win.

I watched some of the debate on the Affordable Health Care for America Act on C-Span Saturday. To over-generalize, Democrats made the Superman argument: the status quo was leading the country to ruin and only HR 3926 could save the day. Republicans countered with the Hell and damnation offensive: passage of the Democrat’s health care reform legislation would lead to the destruction of all America stands for.

The reality is, the Democrats are overselling what the bill does. And Republicans are exaggerating the negatives. Many of the charges leveled against HR 3962 by GOP members were similar to those their counterparts made against Medicare 45 years ago. Now the GOP positions itself as the protector of Medicare. Apparently not all slippery slopes lead to damnation after all.

What the House accomplished on November 7th is historic. It is neither all good nor all bad. Nor, significantly, is it the final word.

Harry Reid’s Health Care Reform Dilemma: The Myth of the 60th Democratic Senator

If asked even two weeks ago I’d have said there was an 80 percent change or greater that meaningful health care reform would be signed into law this year. Now, however, I think the chances of such an outcome are far lower – still substantial – but much less likely.

One reason meaningful health care reform may not reach President Barack Obama’s desk this year is that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is having difficulties in lining up the 60 votes necessary to overcome the inevitable filibuster from Republicans. Senator Reid’s problem is that while there are 60 Senators in his caucus, there are really only 59 Democrats plus Senator Joe Lieberman.

Senator Lieberman caucuses with the Democrats because he used to be one (he won re-election as an Independent in 2006) and he wants to be a Committee Chair (he chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee). However, he campaigned strongly for Senator John McCain in the 2008 presidential campaign, even addressing the Republican National Convention. Senator Lieberman also has said he expects to campaign for Republican candidates in 2010. It doesn’t take much insight to predict that, were Republicans to gain a majority in the Senate, Senator Lieberman would be knocking on their door for admittance.

Senator Lieberman has pledged to support a filibuster of a health care reform bill that includes a public option.  While he recently seems to have backed off this threat, as Timothy Noah on Slate.com points out, the Senator’s position on health care reform has been … well, let’s call it a bit erratic. So let’s say Senator Reid puts forward a bill that Senator Lieberman can support, does that solve his problem?

Hardly. Remember Senator Roland Burris, he of the controversial appointment to the Senate by then-Governor Rod Blagojevich. Senator Burris is threatening to oppose any health care reform bill that does not include the public option. As Senator Rollins is a bit of pariah in the Senate (many of its members, including his fellow Senator from Illinois, having called for him to resign) the Democratic leadership has little influence over his actions. So Harry Reid is in a bit of a no-win situation. Go after Senator Lieberman’s vote and he risks losing Senator Burris’ support. Accommodate Senator Burris and there goes Senator Lieberman.

Meanwhile, Senator Reid is forced to wait for an analysis of his proposal by the Congressional Budget Office. What they have to say about his efforts to blend the Senate Finance Committee and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s differing versions of health care reform will greatly impact the votes of moderate Democrats. Since only one Republican vote, that of Senator Olympia Snowe, seems to be in play, those moderate Democrats hold the key to whether the Senate can muster the votes for health care reform.

Given that the debate in the Senate will be long, slogging through the legislation will take quite some time. While Senator Reid would like to get a bill on the president’s desk before Christmas, this is a present that may need to wait for the new year. That, of course, complicates matters considerably as 2010 is an election year. Lawmakers hate doing controversial things in an even numbered year. (Why the difference between December 2009 and January 2010 makes a difference is one of those unanswerable questions that seem to be especially common within the Beltway).

On paper, Democrats have a 60-vote majority in the Senate. That’s a myth. In reality they have a group of 60 Senators who caucus together, but don’t act together. That’s actually good for democracy (the unanimity within the Republican caucuses in Congress demonstrates stronger party unity, but a lack of individuality that is somewhat startling). But the diversity within the caucus makes being Majority Leader a lot harder.

27 Senators Call for Public Health Insurance Plan

Twentyseven Democratic Senators have signed onto a “sense of the Senate” resolution demanding that a government-run health plan be included in whatever health care reform bill emerges from Congress. Staking out the liberal position for what will be one of the most controversial elements of this year’s health care reform debate, the Senators define a public health insurance option as “essential to reform” according to a report on Politico.com.

Of course, there are government-run plans and then there are government-run plans. As Politico reports, Senator Max Baucus, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, has said that while he expects any comprehensive health care reform legislation emerging from his committee to include a public plan this shouldn’t frighten opponents. “There are says to skin a cat. There are ways to find a solution,” the site quotes him as saying. One option under consideration, for example, is a “‘fallback’ plan, which would trigger a public insurance option if private competition proves inadequate in a geographic region.”

Most Republicans and many moderate Democrats have said they would oppose a health care reform bill if it includes a government-run health plan to compete with private carriers. Whether they would accept the idea of such a plan as a “fallback” is unknown.

Among those co-sponsoring the resolution are several important players in the health care reform debate. For example, Senator Edward Kennedy chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee which will, along with the Senate Finance Committee, is drafting health care reform legislation. And Senators Dick Durbin and Charles Schumer are members of the Democrat’s leadership team in the Senate. Missing from the list are any members of the Moderate Dems Working Group — 18 Democrats (including one independent) who may seek to block inclusion of a government-run plan in health care reform legislation.

The 27 Senators listed by Politico as co-sponsoring the sense of the Senate resolution are:
Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.)
Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.),
Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio)
Roland W. Burris (D-Ill.)
Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.).
Bob Casey (D-Pa.)
Chris Dodd (D-Conn.)
Dick Durbin (D-Ill.)
Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)
Tom Harkin (D-Iowa),
Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii)
Ted Kaufman (D-Del.)
Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.)
Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.)
Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
Carl Levin (D-Mich.)
Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.)
Robert Menendez (D-N.J.)
Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.)
Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.)
Jack Reed (D-R.I.)
Bernie Sanders (I-Vt. – an independent, Senator Sanders caucuses with Democrats)
Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.)
Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.)
Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.)
Tom Udall (D-N.M.)
Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.)