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The End of the Beginning

No, Democrats would not vote to humiliate their own leadership and to kill health-care reform in its crib. By a 60-39 vote, the senate agreed last night to start the health-care debate. Byron York has it right, observing:

The extraordinary thing about the dramatic events surrounding the health care bill in the Senate is that there is any drama in it at all. Lawmakers are simply voting to begin debate on their version of health care reform. Just begin debate — not end it, and not move on to a final vote.

If Democrats, with a 60-vote majority in the Senate, were not able to begin debate on the top Democratic policy priority in a generation — well, that would be a devastating turn of events, both for the party and for President Obama. And yet just starting debate has proved difficult, and only today did the 60th Democratic vote fall in place in favor of beginning the process.

The debate begins after senators go home for the Thanksgiving recess and get another earful from their constituents. Those, like Arkansas senator Blanche Lincoln, who cast a ”Yes, but I really don’t like it” vote to start the debate may come away with a new-found appreciation for just how angry voters can be when lawmakers seem bent on doing what they don’t want done. Republicans on this one are giving Democrats no cover, banking on voters rewarding those who stood firm against higher taxes, Medicare cuts, and a big-government power grab.

As Politico noted, the party-line vote and the apparent determination of a handful of moderate Democrats not to go along with the public option in a final vote “exposed significant divides in the party that make it all but impossible to complete work on a plan by year’s end, and could possibly even sink the bill altogether.” And abortion subsidies once again loom large. On this one, time is not on the Democrats’ side. It seems as though they may well be at this into the new year. (“That timetable has always been worrisome to the White House because it would push the delicate final passage of the legislation into an election year, with Democrats skittish about voter backlash for a plan that draws decidedly mixed reviews in the polls.”)

We will know soon enough whether on a strict party-line vote the senate will pass a hugely controversial bill, which most voters (including the most politically active among them) don’t want and which likely will be used in a furious election campaign to punish those who foisted the bill on the voters. Odder things have happened, but passing this bill would be one of the oddest in recent memory.