As the week begins, the smart money in Washington is betting that the House will adopt the Senate health care package and send it to the President by week’s end.
Count me skeptical.
The postponement of the President’s Far Eastern trip was a sign of White House anxiety that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could not score a victory without the President’s ever-present help. But by the weekend some in the media seemed to doubt that the Speaker could win even with the President working in the wings. A front-page story in Saturday’s Washington Post unhelpfully (for the Democrats, see here: http://bit.ly/dCoLZ5 ) noted that numerous voting deadlines had come and gone during the saga. Was this one just one more?
The White House is clearly anything but laid back on the question. Not only have they hinted that they might be open to more deals like the Louisiana Purchase and the Cornhusker Kickback, payoffs that won the December cloture votes of Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu and Nebraska senator Ben Nelson. But bribery is apparently now combined with blackmail, as, according to some members, Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill threaten their party’s holdouts with ethics investigations.
Meanwhile, the President’s pollster argued in an op-ed (also in Saturday’s Washington Post: see http://tiny.cc/QTham <http://tiny.cc/QTham> ) that if you dug into the polls showing strong public opposition to the health care bill, you found that actually the public supports bill. It was historian Henry Adams who observed more than a century ago that your average member of Congress doesn’t know much but he does know his district. Apparently White House enforcers are hoping that times have changed and that, at least when it comes to polling, foul-is-fair arguments will beguile naïve members.
“Foul is fair” comes, of course, from the Weird Sisters’ chant in the first scene of Macbeth. The next line — “hover over fog and filthy air” — is as good a description of the atmosphere around the health care debate just now as you are likely to find. Everyone knows that the fog of numbers that OBM and others in the administration have put out contending that the bill will bring down deficits and spending is a corrupted concoction meant to obfuscate, not to reveal (for a good summary, see this Wall Street Journal editorial, “The Cost-Control Illusion”: http://tiny.cc/4du0V <http://tiny.cc/4du0V> ). The President and his advisors appear to consider their health care campaign as a win-at-any-cost form of war and, if so, no chief executive’s team has ever been so dedicated to expanding and deepening the fog of legislative war as this crew.
But the Democrats control the Congress today because in more than forty congressional districts and many states voters sent Republican members to the showers out of disgust over excessive spending. In the last two election cycles Democratic Party recruiters were assiduous about identifying and bringing forward candidates who could campaign as fiscal conservatives. Now in office those recruits are being bludgeoned into what could arguably prove the most fiscally catastrophic legislation of American history.
As noted in past editions of this column, Hoover Institution economist John Cogan has calculated that by mid-century the Administration’s approach to health care overhaul will push Federal spending well beyond World War II levels. Even without it the nation is sailing into a gathering fiscal storm, thanks to the unfunded Medicare and Social Security bills coming due. But instead of addressing those forming fiascos, Democratic fiscal conservatives are being told that they must vote to make the nation more spendthrift and more vulnerable. Forget winning or losing the next election. How can those men and women ever go home again, ever hang out with friends and neighbors again, ever be seen as men and women of honor again, after a breach of trust like that?
It was John F. Kennedy who said that sometimes party loyalty asks too much of us. The Democrat’s margin in the House and Senate is made up of members who now find themselves facing such a time –- a vote that does not test their political acumen, their policy insight, the depth of their understanding, so much as it tests their character.
There is a reason so many of these members are still on the fence, a reason that the President feels compelled to postpone what was surely planned to be a triumphal overseas trip. After all these months, after all the arguing and bribing and blackmailing, if Team Obama hasn’t won yet, my guess is they are facing a vote too far.
Keep in mind, though, that’s not what the smart money says.