Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Trouble With Max Baucus

Publius has a post about Max Baucus publicly embracing the public option. As Matt points out, this isn't news -- Baucus' early document supporting the public option as part of a good progressive health care package was one of the reasons people were optimistic about health care reform earlier this year. The trouble with Baucus isn't in his stated policy stances, which are no less than we'd hope from a Montana Democrat on health care.

The real problem is in his procedural fumbling. (That's why I made fun of Baucus by creating a superhero webcomic calling him "Captain Ineffective.") The whole Gang of Six thing is a terrible procedure for producing any sort of bill, let alone good health care reform of the sort that Baucus says he wants. You're not going to get Mike Enzi and Chuck Grassley to support any sort of reasonable bill. And even if Enzi and Grassley were the reasonable moderate Republicans of David Broder's imagination, it's hard to see why they would compromise to create a Senate Finance bill that would be compromised with a more liberal HELP Committee bill that would be compromised with a still more liberal House bill. What of their compromise could they expect to remain?

Like Matt Singer, I'm hopeful that we'll eventually get a bill through. But I disagree with him when he says that Baucus' bottlenecking is a potential problem that only becomes an actual problem if the Senate leadership can't find 60 votes for closure. For one thing, it's fine to pass a crappy bill through the Senate if we can reconcile it with a superior House bill, and push things generally in the House direction. Let's get our crappy public-option-less bill or whatever through the Senate already, and fix it in conference committee! Give Nancy Pelosi and the Incredible Wax-Man a chance to do their heroic work. Since conference reports aren't amendable, you can't threaten a filibuster for concessions that make you look like a big power player. You can only do a straight-up filibuster to block the bill that will basically earn you undying hatred from the rest of your party. That's a bit more than people usually want to take on.

The other thing is that some Senators might be willing to vote for a bill today, but not in a month or two or whenever Baucus finally has let a bill through Finance. Maybe it's the troughing economy eating at Obama's poll numbers, or a natural disaster, or some other bizarre event. But giving the Congressional leadership more options as to whether the bill goes up now or later is much better than confining them to later. Maybe, for whatever reason, the votes will have vanished when the bill finally arrives.
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