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The Gettables

The Gettables

Posted: Monday, January 4, 2010 8:01 pm
By: Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

 By DOUGLAS COHN and ELEANOR CLIFT         WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate may have passed health care reform, but the legislation is still far from a done deal. The bill has to be melded with a more expensive and more progressive version of reform passed by the House. While the two bills are alike in that they expand coverage to some 30 million people and prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions, significant differences between them must be reconciled before Democratic leaders can be confident of the bill’s final passage in the House and Senate sometime early in the new year. Republicans have already started to mount a full court press against the bill as an unwarranted expansion of government that will impose new taxes on people who have insurance. And because the benefits of the bill will not be felt immediately, opponents will find it an easy target to lampoon. With the 2010 midterm elections looming, voters can expect to see the return of television commercials featuring actors like Harry and Louise, the fictional couple whose dismay over health care reform helped sink the Clinton reform effort. Republicans feel they have the wind at their back in terms of public opinion, and that it’s not too late to derail the bill that Democrats have pushed through Congress without a single Republican vote. All the GOP has to do is peel off one vote in the Senate, which would deny the Democrats their 60-vote filibuster-proof majority. And that’s well within the realm of possibility. Three moderate Democratic senators — Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas — had to be begged and in effect bribed with goodies for their states to climb aboard the health-care train. Each one of those three senators is potentially gettable, and to underscore the bill’s vulnerability, health-care isn’t sewn up in the House either. Unlike senators, who have six-year terms, House members face the voters every two years, and a vote for more government intrusion into the lives of their constituents could cost some members in more conservative districts their reelection. In the last several weeks, four conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats have announced their retirements, a harbinger of what could be a disastrous midterm election for the Democrats. Among the most contentious differences that Democrats must resolve among themselves are whether to include a public option in the final bill, and how to pay for the expanded coverage the legislation promises to deliver. The House bill contains a public option that is government run and modeled after Medicare. The House is likely to defer to the Senate and strike the public option because the last several weeks of wrangling have underscored the power of a handful of senators who won’t support a bill that contains a public option, and without them, the Democrats can’t get the 60 votes they need. How to pay for the bill is another area where the two legislative bodies disagree. The Senate would tax so-called Cadillac plans, many of which are held by union workers who were rewarded with better benefits instead of wage increases, while the House wants to impose a surtax on individuals with incomes over half a million dollars. A possible compromise that will please no one is to split the difference and adopt a trimmed-down version of both methods of taxation. The decisions on how and what to compromise will be made in a conference committee made up of members from the House and Senate appointed by the Democratic leadership. The list of conferees has not been made public yet, and once we see who they are, we’ll have a better idea of what shape the final legislation will take. It’s probably safe to say that one of the three critical votes — Nelson, Landrieu or Lincoln — will be represented, because, as the Gettables, they wield more power than the other 57 Democrats and Independents combined. Published in The Messenger 1.4.10

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