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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Moment of Truth Approaches for Dem Leaders

The public option for health care reform may be a dead issue for pundits and centrists, but CNN reports that group of Democratic Senators is calling for a vote on it under the budget reconciliation rule that requires 51 votes to pass the upper house. Sens. Michael Bennet (CO), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Jeff Merkley (OR) and Sherrod Brown (OH), along with 119 House of Reps members, signed a letter urging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to schedule a vote on the proposal under the rule. As the letter explains:

We respectfully ask that you bring for a vote before the full Senate a public health insurance option under budget reconciliation rules…There are four fundamental reasons why we support this approach — its potential for billions of dollars in cost savings; the growing need to increase competition and lower costs for the consumer; the history of using reconciliation for significant pieces of health care legislation; and the continued public support for a public option.

Seems like a reasonable request from four level-headed U.S. Senators, none of whom have ever been associated with political suicide missions, or even unrealistic expectations. And they are on solid political ground, according to polling data. In a Kaiser Family Foundation Kaiser Health Tracking Poll conducted 1/7-12, 2010, 53 percent of respondents said they “would be more likely to support” legislation that creates “a government-administered public health insurance option to compete with private health insurance plans,” with only 31 percent saying they would be less likely to support the public option proposal.
This may be a moment of truth for the beleaguered majority leader, who is starting to look like President Obama’s General McClellan, Lincoln’s union army commander who wouldn’t attack. The comparison may be unfair in this case. If Reid’s head count indicates the votes simply aren’t there, then he would be wrong to schedule the vote. But if the votes are there, Reid should take the initiative, and soon after the Feb 25th health care reform summit. Confidence in Democratic leadership is fast eroding as a result of the perception of excessive hand-wringing and inaction. Further delay could metastasize into unnecessary defeats for Democratic candidates in November. We need a significant win, and soon.
It appears that the political party in power gets about a year to produce reforms that have some credibility, before disapproval takes root. It’s unfair in the sense that this expectation doesn’t take the draconian filibuster threshold into account, but we’re stuck with it — unless we take action via budget reconciliation. Even if the measure is defeated, however, Dems could come back quickly with a modified “plan B” strategy, to give the impression that were are at least trying to pass reforms and moving forward. Otherwise the public perception of do-nothing stagnation will fester on and do deeper damage. What we must convey to voters is the perception that Democrats have the gonads to lead.

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