Doesn't Have the Votes Yet: What Nancy Pelosi Really Said

In the 2010, ultraquick news cycle, Pelosi's "I don't see the votes for it at this time" comment got the pretty standard treatment: high-ranking Democrat says something about health care, and a collective Beltway blogosphere freakout ensues. Did Nancy Pelosi Just Declare Health Care Dead? Ezra Klein wondered in a headline. Drudge Report is currently going with: THE DAY HEALTH CARE DIED. (Full disclosure: I participated in said Beltway freakout, albeit from outside the Beltway.)

Now that we've all had a few moments to catch our breath (à la Talking Points Memo taking things down a notch with a SO IS IT REALLY OVER? headline), let's take a look at what Pelosi actually said. Turns out, it doesn't really boil down to "we don't have the votes." It was more along the lines of, we don't have the votes yet, or don't have enough votes for this specific tactic. Moreover, Pelosi followed up the comment with a pretty strong statement that has largely fallen out of the news reports: "We have to get a bill passed─we know that. That's a predicate that we all subscribe to."

Pelosi does not have the votes yet, but that does not mean she doesn't have the votes period. Or does not have enough votes to pass health-care reform via another legislative route. In fact, not having the votes yet is a situation that Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are both familiar with and have shown success at overcoming. Both were busy making last-minute deals the night before final votes as to shore up the necessary supporters, Reid with Ben Nelson and Pelosi with, among others, Bart Stupak.

Dial back a few months, and we'll see there have been a lot of times when both Pelosi and Reid have openly admitted to not having yet rallied the votes that they need. A short history of not enough votes:

Nov. 6, Associated Press: "House Democrats acknowledged they don't yet have the votes to pass a sweeping overhaul of the nation's health care system, and signaled they may push back the vote until Sunday or early next week."Nov. 20, Politico: "He doesn't have the votes yet─but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and fellow Democrats projected confidence they could clear the first hurdle for health reform, a rare Saturday vote to open debate on the sweeping measure."

The Weekly Standard, Dec. 9: "The much hyped (if utterly incoherent) deal that Harry Reid is touting doesn't look as if it's doing the trick─the trick being to cobble together anything (and I mean anything) that can get 60 votes in the Senate …"

I'm not trying to get all Pollyanna about this situation; the Democrats were a whole lot better off with 60 votes in the Senate. Their options to corral votes are much more limited and complex than they were in previous stages of debate. A lot of it, too, I think, has to do with how you spin and build a narrative around the "don't have the votes" situation. Pre-Brown, the Democratic spin was basically "we don't have the votes but we're looking into what will get us here." Now, in the post-Brown world, the narrative is more confusing, something along the lines of "we don't have the votes and don't know how to get them. We're not even quite sure how exactly we pass health-care reform or if we really want to."

Things for the Democrats (as this particularly on-point editorial cartoon illustrates) do not look good. But, as Dan Stone pointed out a few moments ago, they do have options. They are hearing some serious pleading to get this job done. Pelosi's remarks are an honest appraisal of the situation. They are not a waving white flag. At least not yet.