Reading the Tea Leaves: All About Conference

by Brien Jackson

Given the dust-up over renewed talk about “triggering” the public option, particularly in the Senate, Ezra Klein writes:

It’s always hard to evaluate these leaks. On the one hand, this could mean that the White House supports the public option trigger. On the other, the leak could be an effort to whip up liberals and strengthen Harry Reid’s hand when he says that he needs a viable public option to bring the bill to the floor. Or maybe this is just the White House following through on a promise to Olympia Snowe. Or maybe this is the White House stepping in to play the bad guy on the public option to keep Snowe’s vote. Or maybe it’s an effort to shift the goalposts a bit to the right so a state-based opt-in plan seems like a victory to liberals.

Personally, I think there’s a really simple answer to this; Democrats really want Olympia Snowe to vote for cloture on the Senate bill. Why that is may have a few explanations, but my own guess is that they’re looking for her support because that gives them more leverage over Democrats like Mary Landrieu and Ben Nelson, who will have quite a difficult time explaining to the rest of the Democratic caucus, to say nothing of the larger Democratic Party, why they couldn’t support cloture on a bill that Olympia Snowe, and possibly a couple of other Republicans, voted for as well. This goes back to what I’ve felt all along concerning negotiations over healthcare reform; it’s all about the conference committee.

To wit, if the Senate passes a “trigger option,” and the House passes something else, then the final product can come back with something else, whether it’s a robust public plan or a compromise more palatable to progressives. But the key distinction here is a fine one, but one of pretty high importance, what comes out of conference will be the final bill. That’s huge. We’re not talking about a budget, or a tax bill, or even something that’s important to a key constituency like EFCA. Healthcare reform has literally been the single biggest item on the Democratic Party’s domestic agenda for over half a century now. If a bill can get out of conference and to a final bill in this Congress, with these majorities for the Democrats, there’s no way any Senator can vote against cloture and remain relevant in the Democratic caucus or in broader Democratic politics. They’ll be persona non grata for the foreseeable future, whether they stay in the Senate or not. The wild card, of course, is Lieberman, who doesn’t have much of a future anyway, but while I don’t have a high opinion of him at all, I very much doubt Lieberman wants to go down in history as the guy who killed this effort.

So at this point, I’m pretty much back to finding the Senate irrelevant, other than kicking something to conference. That’s where the important work is going to be done. For now, Reid’s job is to get us there, at pretty much any cost.