Healthcare reform on the ground, bleeding

Progress on the legislation stalls as two houses of Congress square off

By Gabriel Winant
Published January 22, 2010 4:15PM (EST)

For a year, virtually every item on the national agenda has fallen, at some point, into the crack between the Senate and the House of Representatives. Democrats interested in salvaging legislation on virtually any major subject have to figure out how to haul it back. The struggle to revive healthcare reform is by no means the only example of the all-engulfing black hole that is our bicameral legislature, but it’s certainly the most prominent.

Politico reports today on the ongoing unraveling of healthcare reform, and House-Senate warfare is the basic gist. Although both chambers have now passed a bill, getting to an agreement on how to reconcile them threatens to ruin Democrats’ efforts. Under the title "Health care talks collapsing," the article explains that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., doesn’t have the votes to just pass the Senate healthcare untouched. But if she makes any changes, it’s not clear that the majority can round up 60 votes again in the Senate, now that Republican Scott Brown has been elected. Explains Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., "I have to respectfully say to the House, they’ve done some good work, but I just think that the bill that we end up with is going have to be more along the lines of what the Senate did."

This attitude is driving House Democrats, and liberals in general, pretty nuts. Landrieu and other senators seem to think that their unreliable support for their own party (as well as their inability to pass anything with a large majority) grants them some moral superiority over the House, rather than a simply stronger bargaining position. As Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., told Salon’s Mike Madden, "We pass a lot of good things, and it goes over there to die."

All of this is exacerbated by a particularly bitter irony: Not even the Senate bill that the Senate already passed, pre-Scott Brown, could now get the necessary votes in the Senate. In other words, thanks to the Senate of last month the House has the opportunity -- which it probably won't take anyway -- to send straight to the president a major legislative reform to which the Senate of this month would not agree.

So now Pelosi is talking about two possibilities for moving forward on healthcare reform in the House, though it's not clear that either will work, or that either would produce the more progressive outcome many of her members want to see while also satisfying the more moderate House Democrats.

The first option is to trim reform down to the point that it could pass through the newest configuration of the Senate. This might mean giving up on the goal of near-universality, or other key features dear to liberals. The second suggestion is to pass a separate "corrections" bill, making changes to the Senate legislation so that it’s acceptable to a House majority. But anything that the House does this way would also have to clear the Senate, probably through  reconciliation, a procedure that would prevent the GOP from using a filibuster but which has its own drawbacks.

This is clearly a fast-developing and unstable situation, but it seems as though there’s just no getting away from the inability of the House to act without say-so of 60 senators. It’s unfair, it's illogical, it's undemocratic, but that’s how it is for the time being. Obviously, Pelosi knows things we don’t, but for now it’s not clear exactly what she and other members of the Democrats' congressional leadership think they can pull off here.

Gabriel Winant

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

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Healthcare Reform U.s. House Of Representatives U.s. Senate War Room