Will Democrats really doom healthcare?

History shows the White House is likely to get its way in the end, despite all the anxiety this week

Topics: Healthcare Reform, 2010 Elections, Barack Obama, Democratic Party, Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, U.S. House of Representatives,

Will Democrats really doom healthcare?A passerby yells in support of health care during a tea party protest against the proposed health care plan outside Congresswoman Melissa Bean's office in Schaumburg, Ill., Tuesday, March 16, 2010. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)(Credit: Paul Beaty)

By mid-morning Wednesday, the world will know how Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, plans to vote on healthcare reform. With President Obama’s chief domestic policy initiative in danger of going down to defeat for lack of Democratic support, Kucinich, one of two progressive lawmakers who voted against the House version of the legislation last fall because it was too conservative, has been the target of a very hard sell lately. His fellow Democrats want him to flip and vote for the bill, even though he says it gives too much money and power to private insurance companies without a public option included. And now he’s scheduled a 10 a.m. Eastern press conference to declare what his intentions are.

Kucinich may well buck the pressure and hold fast to his “no” vote. But in the end, he’s not likely to have much company if he does. Between now and Saturday, when the House is expected to finally vote on passing the legislation, every single wavering Democrat will get just as much attention from the media, the White House and the House leadership as he or she demands. And when push comes to shove, chances are the administration will get its way. Most of the agonizing in the days between is one part negotiating strategy and one part spotlight-grabbing. History shows, though, that no Democrat is likely to be willing to be the one who sinks Obama’s bill.

Look back at 1993, which is shaping up to be a good parallel for this year. Bill Clinton’s budget proposal was being pilloried by Republicans for raising taxes on the wealthy. Conservative Democrats, fearing for their political survival ahead of what would turn out to be a GOP wave election the following year, started deserting the White House. To dodge a Republican filibuster in the Senate, the reconciliation process was used. Every single GOP lawmaker was opposed to it, so if the bill was going to pass, it would have to be on the strength of Democratic votes only. At various moments, it looked like there was simply no way it would all hold together.

And in the end, though 41 House Democrats voted against it, the bill passed, 218-216.

One of the Democrats who provided the winning margin, of course, was Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky of Pennsylvania, who lost her seat over the vote. The other one was Rep. Pat Williams of Montana. He was opposed to the budget act all along, because he didn’t like a proposal to raise the gas tax. A member of the Democratic whip team, it was Williams’ job to get his colleagues to vote for the bill, even if he didn’t support it. “Clinton called me one last time,” Williams told Salon recently. “I told him he was going to win it by eight votes. The president — who I learned that day could count better than all the whips put together — said, ‘No, I’m going to win it by no more than two, and probably one vote.’ I said to him — knowing he was wrong — ‘Well, Mr. President, I won’t be that one vote [against the bill]. If it comes down to me, I don’t want to sink the federal budget; I’ll vote with you in that instance.’”

You Might Also Like

That’s the sort of thing that tends to happen on big votes. “There’s a certain moment in revivals when you just get the spirit and you move towards the altar,” then-Rep. Bob Wise, D-W.Va., said in 1993, explaining his decision to vote for the bill in the end. There’s a lot of hemming and hawing, but eventually, lawmakers can’t quite bring themselves to be the deciding vote against their own party’s president. Look back at the June 2003 House vote to set up a prescription drug benefit in Medicare, when House Republicans pressured three GOP members to switch their positions in the middle of the night to allow George W. Bush’s proposal to pass by one vote.

“You know what’s going on,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Tuesday. “The votes are close, people are concerned; [it's] controversial. Every member of our caucus wants to vote for health reform … That does not mean by any stretch of the imagination that every one of them will … [but] our expectation is when we bring this bill to the floor, we will have the votes for it.”

The few dozen Democrats whose votes are in play have maximum leverage now; the House leadership, which doesn’t often take kindly to demands from members when legislation is moving smoothly, has little choice but to listen to them now. So people like Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, has been getting plenty of calls from Obama administration officials and House leaders as she weighs her options. “They shouldn’t waste their time with burdening members’ offices with a crescendo of phone calls,” she told reporters Tuesday evening. “What we need to do is work on the … language.”

But the fact that everyone still expects a vote by the weekend is almost surely a sign that the support Democrats need will be there in the end. “If a bill can’t pass, the White House usually won’t get behind it,” Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., told Salon Tuesday. “This is important not for what it does to the White House — I mean, everybody’s talking about the politics of this. We got 30 million people whose insurance is riding on this.”

The game going on now will let a handful of conservative Democrats look tough for being willing to stand up to Obama, and some of them — if leadership winds up having a few spare votes to play with — will actually get to oppose the bill. (The ones who wind up supporting it will probably wish they got on board long ago; there’s little political benefit in waffling for so long before taking an unpopular vote.) But House leaders don’t really seem to doubt they’ll prevail in the end.

“We’ll be ready when it is time to go to the floor,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “We will do what is necessary to pass a healthcare bill to improve quality, lower cost, and make America healthier.”

Pelosi could still wind up being wrong. But don’t bet on it.

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>