Fineman: The Democrats' New Strategy on Health Reform

I think I understand the Democrats' latest strategy for passing a health-care reform plan. At least I think I do after talking to some plugged-in party types on Capitol Hill. For want of a better term, I'm calling their strategy "50-218," which stands for the minimum number of votes President Obama and his party are aiming for in the Senate and House, respectively, to pass a piece of legislation they can plausibly call "reform."

Here is the first point: forget bipartisanship, meaning forget Republican votes. Yes, I know that the Senate Finance Committee's "Gang of Six" is still negotiating, but Republicans on and off the committee are making it increasingly clear that they are fundamentally uninterested in a deal of any kind. And Democratic Hill leaders are concluding the same thing. Indeed, they've been deeply skeptical all along of the wisdom of the White House's insistence on trying to craft a bipartisan pact. "If there's one thing I would fault Obama on, that would be it," said one Hill Democrat, who declined to be named because he was discussing private talks.

The second strategic consideration is this. The votes simply do not exist in the Senate to enact a new entitlement program, which is what Senate Democratic leaders have concluded a "public option" health care plan for non-elderly, non-poor Americans would be. That is especially true since two of the Senate's strongest Democratic supporters of the idea, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Robert Byrd of West Virginia, are too ill and incapacitated to come to the chamber to vote. Assuming that Republicans would threaten a filibuster of any new entitlement program -- a safe assumption -- the Democrats would need 60 votes to pass it. But even with every ambulatory Democrat voting for it, they'd still max out at 58. "We can't get there," said a Democratic senator, who spoke only on the promise of confidentiality. In fact, the Dems could fall several votes short if it came to a vote.

Here's the third strategic consideration: it's highly unlikely that the House of Representatives will pass a bill without a "public option," at least the first time around. Depending on the count you believe -- and the protest letters you read -- anywhere from 56 to 100 of the House's 256 Democrats are threatening a "no" vote. All it would take to kill a bill without a public option is 40 Democratic "no" votes.

How do the party leadership and the president square this circle? They can't entirely, but they can go a long way toward doing so by using the so-called "reconciliation" procedure in the Senate, a budget-related mechanism that would allow the Democrats to pass much, though not all, of Obama's shifting wish list with a mere 50-vote simple majority. With that as the operative target, Senate leaders could move considerably leftward, while allowing butt-covering Senate Blue Dogs to shout "no" in the crowded theater.

The leadership couldn't get the "public option," but they could sweeten the pot with generously-defined expansions of Medicaid and other programs, and by other mandates and rules that would allow the president to claim that he had achieved his main and most cherished historical role in the health care debate: as the man who brought the nation "universal" coverage. Then, so the theory goes, enough liberal House Democrats will climb back on board to save the day. In other words, work around the conservative Blue Dogs in the Senate by settling for the minimum 50 votes; accept their support in the House while trying to win back just enough liberals to pass a final bill by the 218 votes.

There's only one potential problem with this plan, and it could be a huge one. His name is Alan Frumin. He is the Senate parliamentarian. His job is officially non-partisan and his reputation for probity and independence is impeccable. It will be up to him to decide whether much of what Senate leaders want to do in a simple-majority "reconciliation" vote is valid under Senate rules. Simply put, everything in the bill is supposed to relate to balancing the budget. It's a definition that can be stretched -- and that Senate leaders will need to stretch to win reluctant House liberals.

Remember Frumin: he could decide whether 50-218 is a winning formula, or just another losing lottery ticket.