Pelosi, Hoyer and Daschle do a Three Stooges bit on healthcare

They've got the votes, but the Democrats can't get their story straight on healthcare

Published August 21, 2009 8:45PM (EDT)

Taking a shot at the president’s healthcare-reform efforts Friday, Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele challenged, “Put it on the table. And if you don't think you've got enough votes to get to 60, you've got the nuclear option. You've got 51.”

Steele’s explanation for why Democrats haven’t done this yet (“They know it's poisonous, and they know the American people will not tolerate it”) seems unfair, but the man’s still got a point: The crucial battle right now seems to be within the Democratic Party, rather than between the two parties. A unanimous Democratic Party could, as the RNC chief said, do whatever it wanted.

So what is up with the Democrats? Why can’t they get their story straight, even within the leadership? Yesterday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made clear that any bill missing a public option is intolerable. And it’s not just her opinion. That's how the votes in the House shake out, claims the Speaker, who said yesterday in San Francisco, “There’s no way I can pass a bill without a public option.”

But today, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., Pelosi’s erstwhile rival and current top lieutenant as House majority leader, voiced some doubts. Said Hoyer, "I’m for a public option but I’m also for passing a bill. We believe the public option is a necessary, useful and very important aspect of this, but we’ll have to see because there are many other important aspects of the bill as well.” Hoyer didn’t quite contradict his chief outright, but that comes pretty close.

Meanwhile, former Sen. Tom Daschle, the man who was almost secretary of Health and Human Services, visited the White House this morning, and reported that the president is actively considering what Steele, above, called “the nuclear option.” That's become the GOP’s preferred term for jamming a public option through the Senate with 51 votes, using the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process.

“That's not the best way, but that could be the only way,” said Daschle, who himself once served as Senate majority leader.

There’s a weird self-referential aspect to all this. The Senate Democrats won’t pass a bill with a public option, thanks to their rightmost members, and the House Democrats won’t pass a bill without one, thanks to their leftmost members. The president wants one, but is apparently ready to do what he has to in order to claim victory. Hoyer and Pelosi (as well as their Senate counterparts) are falling back on a version of, “Well that’s a nice idea, but I can’t support it, because it won’t pass.” Daschle thinks the “nuclear option” isn’t the best method, apparently, because it looks bad, not because it works any less well.

As long as the Democrats keep falling all over themselves and each other like this, the Republicans will barely have to do any work at all to block reform.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Healthcare Reform Nancy Pelosi D-calif. Steny Hoyer D-md.