Jonathan Singer’s MyDD post, “WSJ: Dems Could Split Bill, Use Reconciliation,” flags an interesting ‘trial balloon’ being floated to move health care reform forward in Congress. Singer cites a Wall St. Journal report by Jonathan Weisman and Naftali Bendavid that Democratic leaders are considering “a strategy shift that would break the legislation into two parts and pass the most expensive provisions solely with Democratic votes.” Singer says,
…There is a better than even chance that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, working in consultation with the Obama administration, will move forward in this regard — passing the easier parts of healthcare reform in normal order, and passing the more difficult parts using the budget process. In such a case, the Democrats could afford to lose as many as 10 votes in the Senate (including that of Ted Kennedy, who has not been seen in the Senate for months) while still enacting the more contentious portions of reform, namely a public option.
Bendavid and Weisman report that “Privately, those involved in the talks now say there is a 60% chance the split-bill tactic will be used.”
The idea here is to cull the ‘low-hanging fruit’ provisions of the health care reform package, such as requiring insurers to cover those with pre-existing illnesses and pass these measures with a few Republican supporters, allowing President Obama to keep his campaign promise about earnestly seeking bipartisan support for reforms. The more hard-to-pass elements, like as ‘the public option; would be voted on afterward through the reconciliation process, which requires only 51 Senate votes.
One upside of the strategy is that it guarantees The President and Congressional Democrats a significant victory before they fight the most bruising battle. It could build support for the more difficult to pass health care reforms, since voters would likely be impressed that the Administration passed needed reforms, sort of a confidence-builder. Momentum can be a ‘force multiplier,’ as was clearly demonstrated by Obama’s election victory (I was one of the clueless who didn’t think Iowa would be all that important in the nominating process).
If there is a downside, it might splinter Democratic supporters into “I like this, but not that so much” camps, diluting support for the more controversial measures. It might also give some members of Congress cover: “I voted for package ‘A,’ because it made sense, but not package ‘B’ because it was too expensive.”
No one really knows how this would play out. An important health care win could build support for another victory, narrow the focus and sharpen the debate. Better if they had broken the bill down into strategically-sequenced components from the get-go, gaining momentum with each new victory, instead of betting the ranch on one huge bill. That’s how single-payer systems were achieved in most democracies that have it.
That said, if the decision is to stick with the big package after all, I’m for it. The provisions seem solid, and glitches can be corrected later by amendments and new legislation. Whatever strategy President Obama and Democratic congressional leaders chose, none who call themselves Democrats should sit this one out.