Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Hamlet Coming to the U.S. Senate For a (Hopefully) Limited Run

As the healthcare debate slowly winds its way toward a coda, we now move to the stage where every individual senator will take center stage to use their power to try and exert concessions from Majority Leader Reid and President Obama. With efforts underway to 1) avert a filibuster; 2) include a public option of some form; and 3) hopefully have some (read Olympia Snowe) bipartisan support, a large handful of senators occupying the right flank of the Democratic spectrum, plus Republican moderates like Snowe, each know that the path to passage must pass through them.

Part of being a senator, it seems, is maximizing one's leverage and place in the limelight. To do so, one can't commit too early on the legislation in question. Rather, there's an incentive to deliberate, ponder, and agonize over the decision. Hence, we will see over the next weeks a large cast of characters playing Hamlet in the backrooms of the capitol and especially through the media. To vote for cloture or allow debate to proceed but vote against final demand that the public option be weakened...those are the questions. Today's Politico gives a short rundown of some of the actors in question. Lets take a look at some of the senators as well as their recent and upcoming campaigns for some insight into how they may be approaching this process.

Ben Nelson (D-NE). Nelson is arguably the most conservative Democrat in the Senate and, as a result, gets a lot of attention as Harry Reid tries to avert filibusters over a wide range of issues. As the Politico story notes, he has been non-committal on virtually every aspect of the current Senate bill although earlier this year he came out against a public option. Not a member of any of the committees actively involved in the health care debate, he hasn't had to show many of his cards to this point. While Nebraska has been a reliably Republican state, Nelson (a former governor) was handily re-elected in 2006 and thus doesn't face voters until 2012. A part of his background to note is that Nelson was once CEO of the Central National Insurance Group and was Director of the Nebraska Department of Insurance.

Blanche Lincoln (D-AR). Lincoln has been more involved in the deliberations to this point as a member of the Senate Finance Committee and voted against the public option during the drafting of the Baucus healthcare bill. Lincoln is also up for re-election next year. She gained 55% and 56% in her previous two elections, which were preceded by two House terms. What's interesting here is that Lincoln is viewed as vulnerable, despite the fact that no clear cut opponent against her has yet emerged. In a series of hypothetical matchups, though, her numbers are underwhelming. While the Razorback state has been in the Republican camp in recent presidential elections (with the exception of Bill Clinton's two wins), its congressional delegation has been overwhelmingly Democratic--though markedly Blue Dog-ish. Lincoln's Senate colleague David Pryor can also be viewed as somewhat on the fence.

Joe Lieberman (I-CT). The bane of progressives' existence, Lieberman made waves yesterday by signaling his willingness to join a Republican filibuster against the Reid bill. Lieberman, as we know, was defeated in the Democratic Senate primary in Connecticut in 2006, only to re-emerge, and win, as an Independent. Since then he has proven a constant thorn in the side of his Democratic colleagues with the height of his apostasy coming with his endorsement of John McCain in last year's presidential race. It seems as if President Obama's willingness to look past this (and signal to Reid his preference that Lieberman retain his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee) hasn't kept Lieberman from straying from the reservation.

Mary Landrieu (D-LA). Landrieu, just re-elected last year with 52% of the vote (she received 52% in 2002 and 50% in 1996), is using her post as chair of the Senate Small Business committee to advocate for the needs of small business owners (see additional coverage here). Up until this point Landrieu has been skeptical of the public option but may prove amenable to a bill including the "opt out" provision for states. Representing a state that seems to be moving more to the right, this compromise could allow her to thread the needle of both supporting health care reform (and her party) but representing the needs (and doubts) of her constituents.

Olympia Snowe (R-ME). The most powerful woman in Washington. Throughout the crafting of health care legislation in the Senate--especially as a member of Max Baucus' "gang of six"--Snowe has been a pivotal player. Her vote in favor of a final passage, even if she is the only Republican "Yes" vote in either the House or Senate, will allow the package to be labelled "bi-partisan." She is virtually unbeatable in Maine and recent polling suggests that her favorability is higher among Maine Democrats than Republicans. Reid's decision to include an "opt-out" public option in his version of the bill, rather than Snowe's preferred "trigger," has turned her mood sour, however.

Where any of these senators end up is anyone's guess. Health care supporters have to hope that Harry Reid knows which levers to pull for each of these members. Senate leadership, oftentimes referred to as "herding cats," requires an almost preternatural understanding of human nature. Is a senator being sincere? Is he bluffing? Is he truly undecided? Can he be pressured? Is he feigning indecision to get attention for something else? All of this must be determined and a response crafted. While some might fear that catering too much to those in the middle jeopardizes the support of Democrats on the left flank, its hard to envision a scenario in which Senate liberals don't support whatever emerges in the end. So, as we go through the next several weeks the Senate will oftentimes seem less like a legislature and more like a theater.

No comments: