Thursday, December 31, 2009

Conference Committee 2: Health Care

Following up on this post, where I described the general rules of reconciling differences between House and Senate versions of a bill, I will now discuss expectations for the upcoming House-Senate conference on health care.

For those of us who would like to see the Congress reject both versions, and start over with a more market-oriented approach, such as I described here, the best-case scenario would be for the Democrats to fall into such disagreement about whether the legislation either goes too far, or not far enough, that they fail to reach a compromise.

Nate Silver, on the 538 blog, who is on the opposite side from me on this issue, considers, and (correctly I think) rejects that possibility.

Joe Klein has written an opinion piece in Time, arguing, from a center-left perspective, against left-wing opponents of a compromise bill. He acknowledges that the public-option government health insurer is dead, but calls it "a worthy but relatively minor provision". Klein parrots the Obama line that it would just add one more competitor to the existing insurance marketplace. That ignores the possibility that, by using public subsidies to hold down premiums, it could force private-sector insurers out of business.

In Politico, Josh Kraushaar writes that Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina, the number-three House Democrat, is furiously back-pedalling from the public option, after the Senate approved a bill without that provision. He seems to be laying the groundwork for the quiet death of that provision in conference.

Congressional Democrats will be faced by a variation on that old military question, "Will the center hold?" The new version is, "Will the center-left hold?" Unfortunately, I suspect that it will, and that Congress will agree on a bill that is very similar to that which passed the Senate.

It would be a major embarrassment for President Obama and the congressional leadership to come out of this process without some form of legislation being signed into law. For Democrats running for reelection next November in conservative states and districts, the embarrassment may come at that time.

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