Would Reconciliation for Health Care Affect Midterm Elections?

February 26, 2010 · 8:00 AM EST

Democrats have plenty of reasons to try to pass health care reform through the Senate using reconciliation to avoid the need for a 60-vote majority. But using the process would constitute a risky roll of the dice for party leaders.

Democratic strategists clearly understand the importance of passing some sort of health care reform bill before November, and they aren’t at all optimistic about working with Republicans from scratch on a new measure. Their view, right or wrong, is that Republicans aren’t serious about working on a bipartisan measure.

Given that, reconciliation could be the only way for Democrats — and for the president — to pass a bill that they desperately need in order to deliver on a key campaign promise.

Using reconciliation to circumvent unified Republican opposition would generate applause on the left, and especially with Democrats who have complained that party leaders have placed too high a priority on reaching out to Republicans and not enough on passing reform that the Democratic base wants.

Democratic enthusiasm has been a problem at the grass roots (at least compared with the GOP), so a confrontation with Republicans over reconciliation and passage of a reform bill would almost certainly energize Democrats (assuming, of course, that the grass roots were pleased with the final bill). That could close the enthusiasm gap that separates the two parties going into the midterm elections.

One GOP strategist I talked with argued that Democrats have already been damaged by the health care reform debate, and using reconciliation would not make things that much worse for the president’s party.

Passing any health care reform bill could lead to a quick uptick in overall public sentiment, since some of the negativity about Congress and about the direction of the country stems from Washington’s inability to address the nation’s toughest problems.

But while using the reconciliation process could help Democrats deliver on their promise, it could also give Republicans yet another arrow in the party’s already well-stocked quiver.

While Republican legislators and their talking-head allies would be sure to bash the substance of the proposal — just as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) did on Monday in his press release, criticizing “another partisan, back-room bill that slashes Medicare for our seniors, raises a half-trillion in new taxes, fines them if they don’t buy the right insurance and further expands the role of government” — they also would be able to attack Democrats for how they passed the measure.

I recently spoke with Republican pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies, a veteran of the health care wars, about the danger Democrats face using reconciliation to pass health care reform, and he thinks the tactic would be a gamble for Democrats.

“Process issues usually don’t matter,” acknowledged McInturff, before noting that this time things could be different.

“People have a stunning amount of information about the fight over health care reform and Democratic efforts to pass a bill. There is the perception that there have been backroom deals — with Senators from Louisiana and Nebraska, and with labor unions — to get support for a bill that isn’t to the public’s advantage.”

“People have come to the conclusion that it must be a bad bill, since if it were a good one, Democratic leaders wouldn’t have had to do what they did to get the votes to pass it,” McInturff continued.

“Using reconciliation could reinforce the view that Democrats are trying to pass a flawed bill, so they are having to use an unusual procedure to pass it.”

McInturff is quick to point out that Republicans would have to put reconciliation into “the broader narrative,” arguing that it is because the bill is “deeply flawed” that Democrats can’t use “ordinary means” to pass it through Congress.

In fact, the GOP pollster notes, the White House’s decision to jettison the special deals that Democratic Senate leaders used to round up 60 votes to pass the Senate’s version of health care reform demonstrates that the White House understands just how “toxic” the special deals with Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.) were.

Finally, McInturff adds that the “tone and tenor” of Republican opposition is important and that showing respect for the president is absolutely crucial. And he warns that GOP Senators shouldn’t get drawn into an argument about the process of reconciliation — which has been used by Republican presidents — but should stress the flaws of the Democratic bill and Democrats’ need to use an unusual process to pass it.

If McInturff is correct, and I believe he is, Democrats would face an uncomfortable trade-off. They could try to pass a bill they desperately want and one that would please base voters. But in doing so, they would give Republicans more ammunition to use against them, possibly solidifying the GOP’s hold on independents and swing voters.

Failure to pass a health care bill is the single worst outcome possible for Democrats. Unfortunately for party leaders, passing a bill using reconciliation looks like a very close second.