Let's get to the heart of the debate: First, set aside the extraordinary complexity of thousands of pages of health-reform legislation. Next, throw out the labyrinth of impossible details about the Senate reconciliation process. Not important.
Only one thing really matters. And that is convincing the House to pass the Senate bill. Everything else is a side show at best.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday the next step is for the House to pass the Senate bill so the process of reconciliation can move forward. The president says he wants this to happen by March 18 — two weeks from now.
But if the House passes the Senate bill exactly as written, Obamacare becomes the law of the land. The deal will be done.
The president wants the House to go first with the promise that problems would be fixed in subsequent legislation.
But if the House passes the Senate bill, there is no need for another bill. President Obama would be able to sign this massive 2,700-page Senate bill into law the next day, and it is done. Any promises that it would be fixed after that aren't worth the paper they might, or might not, be written on.
The White House is desperately trying to find every vote possible to get to the current majority number of 216 votes in the House to pass Obamacare. The president cleared his schedule Thursday afternoon for marathon meetings with House members.
Rep. Bart Stupak, Democrat of Michigan, said on ABC that he and eleven colleagues who voted for the earlier version of the House bill will vote "no" this time if abortion language isn't changed from the Senate version.
"Let's face it, I want to see health care," Stupak said. "But we're not going to bypass some principles and beliefs that we feel strongly about."
But they and others are being told that if they want health reform, they have to take the first vote so the leadership has a bill to fix.
The package of fixes being negotiated between Stupak and others is a distraction at best.
Once House members take the vote on the Senate bill, they have absolutely no control over what the Senate does next. The Senate may or may not be able to get a second bill passed to address concerns of the House.
And that means House Democrats will have taken the fall by voting for:
• The Cornhusker Kickback, the Louisiana Purchase, and every other vote-buying deal buried in the Senate bill.
• Abortion language that clearly allows federal funding for abortion and which the U.S. Conference of Bishops solidly opposes.
• The Cadillac tax on high-cost health-insurance policies that labor unions hate.
• Weak enforcement provisions for the individual mandate that health insurers say will cause pools to disintegrate, causing premiums to skyrocket for those still buying policies.
And that's just for starters.
It would be the dupe of all time if House members were to be convinced that they must go first to keep the process moving forward, only to find that Obamacare passes the finish line in the form of the Senate bill.
It will be interesting to watch conservative Democrats this fall trying to explain to constituents, who already have told them in no uncertain terms that they hate this legislation, that they were promised that they would have a second chance to take a vote to fix it.
In this game, there will be no second chances.
Congressional leaders are making plans to pass health reform in a stealth maneuver that is in full view of the nation. Astonishing.
Published in National Review Online: Critical Condition, March 5, 2010.