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Calling the Bluff in the Conference Committee

By       Message Paul Rogat Loeb     Permalink
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As the health care bill goes to conference, there's obviously a tension between a pretty decent House bill and a Senate one that's probably better than nothing, but contains some seriously problematic elements and is far worse than what's needed to really move forward. Senate negotiators will no doubt try to keep their version over that of the House by using the specter of Senators Lieberman and Nelson filibustering if the House holds firm on issues like the public option or paying for the bill by taxing the wealthy rather than those with decent health insurance. And if the House negotiators hold firm, Lieberman and Nelson might indeed go with the Republican team and vote against cloture.

But that's not guaranteed, despite all their bluster. At the last moment, Lieberman might just pull back his threat to support a Republican filibuster, for fear of losing his committee or creating more prime footage to be used in Democratic ads in 2012. Nelson may fear a potential primary challenge or exclusion from Democratic fund raising. So far they've backed the rest of the Democrats down at every turn, but they've never really been tested on their threats.

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If they do show this fundamental disloyalty, they become branded as allies of Republican obstructionism that in way that's far more lasting than when they could claim it was all a negotiating posture. Their support of a filibuster would also take the heat off all the other Democrats who can then respond, "We fought as best we can for what we think America needs, but the Republicans blocked it, so we're going to pass what we can and then keep fighting for more." It allows them to draw a clear line between the party that supports popular elements like a public option and a health bill based on progressive taxation, and the one that continues to block them. By forcing Lieberman and possibly Nelson to be the ones to make the break to defend regressive an unpopular positions, the Democrats might just begin regaining that populist mantle they've lost through this endless year of caving and compromising and then compromising some more.

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At that point, if Democratic Senators can't get it an improved bill past a Republican filibuster, the lines of who is fighting for what will be drawn a lot more clearly to the public than they are at this point. That's a good thing, not something to fear. And if they do still want to pass the remaining core of the health plan, they can fall back to the original Senate bill, or something close to it, and leave the bill's problems far more tied to the Republicans and that handful of disloyal Democrats, than to all the other Democratic Senators who would have voted to back not only what was right, but also what most Americans want.

So there's every policy reason for House Democrats to stand strong, because by doing so, they also help themselves and their Senate colleagues gain political ground. Taking a strong stand might even recover some of the squandered good will they rode in with just over a year ago.

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Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time, and The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear,winner of the 2005 Nautilus Award for the best book on social change. See (more...)

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