Before the sun comes up on Christmas Eve, Senate Democrats will gather to pass a sweeping health reform bill, then scatter to long-delayed holiday vacations with a victory for the party and President Barack Obama in hand.
They’d better use the break to rest up. Victory will be fleeting.
The 7 a.m. vote will end the bill’s arduous 25-consecutive day slog through the Senate, a record surpassed only by a 26-day streak in 1917 as the Senate debated entering World War I.
Then Democrats turn their attention to reconciling the differences between the House and Senate versions of reform after Christmas, and that won’t be easy.
House Democratic leaders have signaled an understanding that once-essential provisions like the public option and surtax on the wealthy have little shot at making the final cut. But House progressives say they’re not prepared to roll over for the Senate.
In an op-ed Wednesday, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) wrote that “the Senate health care bill is not worthy of the historic vote that the House took a month ago."
Progressives are also pushing to make insurance more affordable – probably by increasing subsidies for coverage. But even that request, which seemed doable last week, came in for a thumping Wednesday from moderate Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, who said he doesn’t want to see the bill’s price tag go much above the Senate’s number of $871 billion.
On a conference call with her rank-and-file Wednesday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi walked House Democrats through the schedule for negotiations, telling her members that the best-case scenario would have a bill on the president's desk at the end of January or early February. One reason for the delay — the 12 days the Congressional Budget Office would need to deliver a final bill’s cost estimates.
Perhaps sensing the work that has to be done over a tight January timeline, the White House signaled Wednesday that it’s unlikely President Barack Obama will sign health care reform into law before his State of the Union address, which is most likely to be on Jan. 26 or Feb. 2
The Democratic hedge is an offensive move designed to give Democrats a buffer that prevents health-care-is in-trouble story lines if they miss the SOTU deadline and allows them to claim an early victory if they make it.
But the move does have its downsides. It could embolden House Democrats to drag out negotiations in an effort to win more concessions from a Senate firmly set against changing much about their bill.
And the longer health care sits, the longer it steals the spotlight from other Democratic priorities like job creation. The White House seems to think it can create a new jobs narrative while health care is on the back burner. But an issue as big as health care never just simmers until it's cooked. Whenever it boils over, attention will shift away from jobs and back to health care.
The good news for Democrats is that most members are tired of wrestling with the legislative behemoth and want to pin it down as soon as possible. In fact, Democratic staffers will begin working next week to meld the House and Senate versions into a final bill. Relevant House committee chairmen plan to return to the Capitol the first week in January, with rank-and-file members returning the week after. The Senate is also expected to start negotiations soon.
The last time Democrats shifted deadlines was in November, shortly before the House and Senate took up reform. Democrats who had been saying that they would deliver a bill to Obama by the end of the year changed their goal to simply passing both bills by then and delivering a final bill to the president before the State of the Union. The play was aimed at changing the dominant narrative that any hangover into 2010 would be a death knell for reform — and it worked.
Unlike last time, when moving deadlines was essential to avoiding catastrophic failure, this go-round feels more like a hedge against an unforeseen hiccup. Democrats in both chambers are painfully aware of the political realities of getting the bill passed and are unlikely to let any parochial interest derail reform. But because there is little historical precedent to guide the conference committee, and not much time to get it done, Democrats are playing it safe and giving themselves some breathing room.
Patrick O’Connor and Carrie Budoff Brown contributed to this story.