"Is There a Doctor in the House -- or Senate -- Before 2013?"
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., seems to have his 60 blue ducks in order for a health care reform vote by Christmas Eve. And journalists on the political "dog watch" will start eyeing the conference committee process for reconciling the House and Senate versions to see where Democrats will have to sidestep congressional IEDs (improvised electoral detonators) for the 2010 and 2012 elections.
I claim no expertise in the Byzantine rules of Congress. (Complete cynics have called them Robbers' Rules of Order.) But anyone who has read the likes of historian Robert Caro on the deft congressional dealings of Lyndon Baines Johnson must marvel whenever good reporting gives us another moment to exclaim, "They can do that?!"
Dem wonks — as opposed to the Rep robots — are currently speculating about potential strategies to hasten the timetable for reforms. In order to meet President Obama's $900 billion ceiling for reform over the next 10 years, the politicos have had to gin up workable numbers. Congressional Dems set their time-bomb clock on major aspects of spending to go off several years hence. Significant aspects of the House bill take effect in three years, and much of the Senate bill gets going in four years.
For instance, American Prospect co-founder and Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Starr notes in his Dec. 21, TPMcafé (Talking Points Memo) blog, "The House's January 1, 2013 date for implementation may raise worries that if states are conducting their first open enrollments in the new insurance exchanges in the fall of 2012, any bugs in the program's start-up could create political problems for the President's re-election."
Others have noted that something similar happened to the Hapless-crats, after the passage of Social Security in 1935. Originally, the program's first pension benefits were not supposed to be paid out until 1942. But as the 1940 election loomed large, the Rep-robates ramped up attacks on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's party for having passed a socialist boondoggle that would never yield a dime for the populace.
Dems were able to hustle through legislation that accelerated the payment schedule, and the presentation of the first Social Security pension check to Ida May Fuller in January 1940, was heavily promoted and much covered. But Phil the Buster didn't have today's 60-vote paunch, the number of senators needed to end a filibuster or pass costly legislation like the health care reform bill.
Starr recommends that the House-Senate conference committee (assuming the Senate passes its legislation) step up the Senate's slower timetable. Because states are charged with implementing things like the insurance exchanges, states more ready to move should be able to get going right away and not wait for a uniform 50-state start-up date, as now prescribed in the legislation.
Starr suggests, "States might be given incentives (though not yet full funding) to come into the program early, perhaps even during 2011. A state like Massachusetts, which already has a functioning insurance exchange, might be able to move that quickly. Other states might follow during 2012, with a final date for implementation and full federal funding coming in mid-2013." That way, the Dems could point to progress in some states as voters prepare to go to the polls.
Of course, such patchwork politics could go either way. On the one hand, the GOP could accuse Dems (truthfully or not) of favoring places where you don't happen to live. On the other, it might work to pressure state politicians to place implementation on a fast-track.
Even if the congressional conferees do opt for a slow timetable, Starr adds, congressional Democrats could level the 60 vote legislative hump by using a budget-reconciliation measure, which requires only 51 votes in the Senate.
Reconciliation, a process much used by George W. Bush and the formerly Republican Congress, does have its complications and limitations. For one thing, Dem wonks note that budget reconciliation has to be approved by the Senate Budget committee, whose conservadem chair, Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., won't use the maneuver.
Still, the wonkocrats are picking over the minutia and might come up with some useful mechanics and the rationale needed to engage dogs blue, purple and pink. That likely would be motivated by preserving their chairmanships, which only go to the majority party, if not their jobs.
Reconciliation doesn't seem needed for this week's expected Senate passage, but some experts are considering how the process might move along later fixes to what gets into the final health care sausage casing.
I don't want to drag readers more deeply into the political weeds, so just keep one eye on the pace set for implementation and the other on those fateful dates in November (2010 and 2012).
This blog is adapted from Paul Kleyman's e-newsletter, Generations Beat Online.