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The Charge of the Democratic Health-Care Brigade

“Where are we now?” This seems to be the question in the wake of yesterday’s health-care summit. The scenarios going forward indicate the amazing political condundra facing the president and his party.

1) Pass the health-care bill without Republican support. Well, OK, but which bill and how? The House has already passed a bill. In order to secure passage, which came with just a margin of five votes, House leaders agreed to remove abortion coverage from it (the so-called Stupak amendment). Now, try to follow this. The bill that has been voted out of the Senate committee for consideration of the full Senate features abortion coverage. Republicans have enough votes to filibuster this bill. That’s why there’s talk of passing it through the process called “reconciliation,” which needs only 51 votes, which Democrats have.

2) Make the House vote for the Senate bill. The way to muscle this legislation into law is for the House to give up its bill, bring the Senate bill (after it’s passed with 51 votes) up for a vote, pass it, and have Obama sign it. But here’s the thing. The Senate bill doesn’t have the Stupak amendment, so the dozen or so House Democrats who insisted on taking abortion out of the bill so that they could vote for it face a terrible choice. They will either have to vote for it and betray their principles and their voters and the fight they waged before. Or they can say no and risk torpedoing the bill.

It’s even more interesting than that, because three votes for the bill will not be recorded for it the next time it comes up — one due to death (John Murtha), two due to resignations (Neil Abercrombie and Robert Wexler). So what will House Democratic leaders do? They can try to put the arm on leftist Democrats who resisted voting for the original bill on the grounds it didn’t go far enough. In which case, they can win this.

Ah, but here’s the rub. They can’t possibly believe that the political situation last fall, when the House voted for its version of the bill, is the same today. Every House member is up for re-election, and polling suggests a catastrophe in the making for Democrats, in part due to the meltdown in support for health-care legislation (now 25 percent, according to CNN this week). Pelosi and Co. surely know they will not get  every single one of the 215 votes they scored last time (absent the Stupak dozen). They may be grasping at straws, but simple survival instinct will cause a major panic at the prospect of having to cast this vote. And there’s no knowing what people will do in a panic except that they will try at all cost to save their own skins.

3) Let it die in committee. Even if the Senate does pass the bill through the 51-vote reconciliation process — a big “if,” because it will ignite a major populist revolt that could have terrible consequences for Democrats in shaky Senate seats up for re-election in November —  the combination of bad poll numbers and the Stupak problem probably mean that the “pass the Senate bill” option is off the table, and so the normal Washington process will go forward. House and Senate negotiators will have to meet to harmonize their two bills. They will then agree on a single unitary piece of legislation. That unitary piece of legislation must then go back to the full House and the full Senate for final passage, at which point it is sent to the president, who can sign it into law.

The chances this will happen are increasingly remote. The attempt to pass the harmonized bill would reignite every firestorm over health care, at a time when support is only likely to decline still further. Tea Parties would erupt. Republicans will build forts with the 2,000-page bills and stack them to the inside of the Capitol Dome. Avoiding this horror show is the reason for the “pass the Senate bill” strategy. Democrats cannot allow it to happen. It would be best, at that point, to let the bill die in committee, with serious claims that the differences between the bills just couldn’t be breached. That will look terrible, but it’s the better of the two options.

4) The suicide mission. If the health-care bill collapses, the Obama presidency will be dealt a staggering blow from which it could recover, I would guess, only with a really extraordinary economic turnaround. The political calamity for Democrats in November will still take place; the president will lose the entirety of his capital with elected officials in his party; the media, sniffing a loser, will turn slowly but surely on him; and the conviction inside his own camp that he can work wonders with his silver-tongued patter will dissipate, causing a complete crisis of confidence inside the White House.

It would be better for him, unquestionably, for the legislation to pass, as a practical political matter. One could argue that the fate of his party really does rest on Obama’s shoulders, so it would be better for Democrats as well. But not for individual Democrats. So what happens if the Obama-Pelosi-Reid strategy for health-care passage is an order to House Democrats to carry out a suicide mission? That is hard to say. ObamaCare is the Democratic object of desire. One imagines that even those Democrats who don’t want to vote for it support it in their heart of hearts. So perhaps they can be appealed to on the grounds of liberal principle.

I don’t think there’s ever been a situation like this in American political history. Every way you look at it, Democrats are boxed in, forced to choose between extraordinarily unattractive options. What makes it especially noteworthy is that this was a calamity they summoned entirely upon themselves.

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