Health Reform Politics Proving Hazardous to Democrats

Harry Reid isn't the only Democrat who might be history after the debates are over.

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

President Obama invited the 60 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus down to the White House Tuesday for a healthcare pep talk. Apparently, it didn't do much good. The president's advice, according to sources inside the U.S. Senate, was for his fellow Democrats to try to have more fun trying to get the bill through; so much for the teleprompter. And so much for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is seemingly on his own now that senior White House communications personnel are putting out the word that the bill needs to be done before Christmas or it won't get done at all.

Reid has, for some time, been announcing that he has a deal, an agreement on language the 60 senators who are not Republicans will support, dislodging the bill from limbo and freeing it from a filibuster--but that's not really true. The senior senator from Nevada has talked about concepts and asked the Congressional Budget Office to figure out how much certain approaches will cost, but he has not been able to come up with a solution that satisfies his party colleagues on what now appear to be the three key problems with the bill: the tax hikes, the increase in insurance premiums, and the cuts in Medicare that are needed to pay for it. For every Democrat and independent he appears to win over, he seems in danger of losing one or two more.

Even as Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman says his comfort level is rising, moderate Democrats like Missouri's Claire McCaskill, and Virginia's Jim Webb are starting to speak out about their concerns particularly that the current approach Reid wants to use will cost too much. At the same time others, like temporary Illinois Sen. Roland Burris, have been emboldened enough to threaten to vote against any legislation that does not include a public option.

All of this obviously frustrates the liberal partisans, particularly those who insist any deal include some kind of public option and individual insurance mandates, which are necessary prerequisites for the Canadian-style single payer system many of them really want. And it's leading to dissention among the ranks, and dissention from all sides.

For the Democrats, it's potentially very damaging politically.

Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, who helped build the liberal grassroots that were central to Obama's election, is calling the Senate bill a bailout for the insurance companies that should be defeated. On the other side are the folks at MoveOn.org who are now taking out after Lieberman, saying in an E-mail sent Wednesday to supporters that the former vice-presidential candidate "has been one of the biggest obstacles to real healthcare reform with a public option all year."

"First, Joe Lieberman helped President Bush invade Iraq, and the Democrats in Washington forgave him. Then, he endorsed John McCain, and they forgave him again. Then, he personally attacked Barack Obama at the Republican National Convention, and still the Democrats forgave him," the group says. "Now, Joe Lieberman is single-handedly gutting health care reform. The time for forgiveness is over. It's time to hold Senator Lieberman accountable."

While the criticism of Lieberman is somewhat hollow--MoveOn.org did play a role in his defeat in the Democratic primary the last time he stood for re-election, after all--it is an example of the absolutely hair-pulling frustration the liberal community feels over the failure, thus far, to pass something through the Senate. And it looks like it's only going to get worse.

The latest polls show a majority of the American electorate rejects the framework of the Reid bill, which is all there really is. Reid's decision to "buy" the vote of Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu has other senators standing around with their hands out. And, if the recent statements coming out of McCaskill and Webb and others are any indication, the smart political move may now be for a senator to make disapproving noises about the bill to satisfy the concerns of the folks back home--especially for the senators from "red states"--even if they intend to eventually vote for it.

This represents a considerable shift in the politics surrounding the bill that may produce even more problems for Reid and the White House. No one can be sure right now where anyone stands.

President Obama has counseled the members of his party to vote for the bill so they can make history. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, on the other hand, is advising senators that if they vote for Reid's healthcare bill, they will be history. When you look through the polling data in the individual states where there will be Senate races next year, it's starting to look at lot more like McConnell may be right.

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