Monday, February 8, 2010

It's All About Discipline

Watching the depressing spectacle of the Democrats stumbling to pass comprehensive health care reform got me wondering how the Republicans were able to pass the Medicare drug benefit in 2003 with a mere 51 Republican senators—nowhere near the 60-vote majority Democrats enjoyed up until last week. The contrast between the stories of the two bills is enlightening.

The difference isn’t ideological—both bills called for an expansion of the role of government in providing health care benefits. It isn’t a matter of fiscal conservatism—the Medicare bill was originally estimated to cost over $400 billion in its first 10 years (though after its passage that number quickly ballooned to $1.2 trillion, and there was a minor dust-up when it was revealed that the Bush administration’s own numbers during the debate estimated its cost at closer to $600 billion). If anything, the current bill is more fiscally responsible, in that it contains means to pay for it, which the Medicare bill did not. In fact, Republicans pushed to waive the normal rules in place that said any new program needed to contain a mechanism to pay for it. No, the difference is quite simple: party discipline. The Republicans have it, the Democrats don’t.

Today’s Democrats have focused, understandably so, on the problem of the Senate filibuster rule. The need to overcome a potential filibuster means that, in the face of a united Republican front in opposition to any bill, the Democrats have to get every single Democrat (plus ostensible independents Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders) to vote to end debate in order to pass a bill.

But that same procedural impediment faced the Republican Senate in 2003. So how did they do it? One obvious answer is that they were able to get some Democrats to break party ranks and support the bill. Ultimately, 11 Democrats voted for the bill. Had the Democrats shown the same devotion to party as today’s Republicans have, they could have killed that bill.

But there is another interesting subplot to the 2003 story. The final bill passed the Senate by a 54-44 vote. How did they manage this, if today Democrats need 60 votes to get health care reform passed? The answer once again is party discipline, but of a different kind.

There was an attempted filibuster against the 2003 bill. But the cloture vote passed, 61-39, because seven Republicans senators (Chafee, Ensign, Graham, Gregg, Lott, Nickels and Sununu) who voted against the bill voted for cloture. In other words, unlike today’s strutting prima donnas (i.e., Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson), the Republicans who opposed the Medicare bill did not try to use their votes to kill the bill if it did not conform exactly to their liking. They agreed to vote for cloture and then against the bill, ostensibly (or maybe even actually) in the name of democracy and the value of an up-or-down vote--but more likely in the name of not denying their party and its president a legislative victory. Had Lieberman and Nelson done the same, instead of holding up the bill while they continually demanded more concessions, they could have voted against the bill, but still allowed an up-or-down vote, and health care reform could have passed in the fall.

Yes, if even one Republican had been willing to break ranks, the bill could have passed (and still could). But Democrats should have known early on that, as Jim DeMint too honestly put it, Republicans wanted to hobble the entire Obama presidency by turning this issue into his “Waterloo.” Given that reality, the blame also falls on a Democratic leadership that allowed itself to be blackmailed by two senators who put their own selfish interests ahead of the party’s and the nation’s.

One final note—among the Democrats voting for this unfunded Medicare benefit in 2003 were Max Baucus, Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln and Ben Nelson—all of whom worked to curtail the size and cost of the current bill, allegedly in the name of “fiscal conservatism.”


  1. Where's Lyndon Johnson when you need him?

  2. In Obama's defense, Lauren, LBJ had the advantage of access to J. Edgar Hoover's files on members of Congress, and that knowledge helped him get more than a few votes.