Advancing a Free Society

Harry Reid Doth Protest Too Much (on health care votes)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

While the first Senate votes on health care repeal largely followed script, there was a surprise. Seventeen Democratic senators voted against a measure that would repeal the much-maligned expansion to 1099 tax form reporting requirements.

On first take, these votes seem odd, at the least. I expected a unanimous vote, or close to it, on repeal of this part of the health care law. As I wrote here, there are sound policy and political reasons for lawmakers, regardless of party, to support repeal of the 1099 expansion. What’s more, during his State of the Union address, the president gave Democrats political cover when he called out, in no uncertain terms, that he wanted Congress to repeal that specific provision of the health care law. This weekend, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages referred to the seventeen no votes as “[a] mystery.”

I think Majority Leader Harry Reid left us some clues to solve this mystery. These seventeen votes were, I suspect, intended to reassure liberal activists and commentators that Reid is in charge of his caucus and is ready to put up a good fight on every front against the Republican assault on the health care reforms.

It’s a message to be skeptical about.

Before we look at just how believable that message is, I should explain why this seems to be a coordinated message from Majority Leader Reid.

First, if you look at who cast those no votes, it sure looks like the Democratic leadership rounded up a modest number of senators who could withstand the electoral risk of making an unpopular vote in the interest of advancing the party’s cause. Twelve of the nay votes came from senators who are not up for reelection in 2012, and the other five were cast by heavy favorites in this election cycle. The other twenty Democratic Senators beginning reelection campaigns got a pass on this one.

Another indication that these votes were meant to be a signal: the high-profile members of the Democratic party leadership all voted no. Majority Leader Reid, Sen. Durbin, Sen. Schumer, Sen. Murray, and Sen. Inouye (the President Pro Tempore and senior statesman of the caucus) cast five of the no votes. What makes that solidarity even more interesting, and I think telling, is that Harry Reid deputized Ms. Stabenow, who is Vice Chair of the Democratic Policy Committee, to introduce the successful amendment. Stabenow’s sponsorship of the amendment along with no votes indicate to me that the Democratic leadership was at once supportive of the repeal itself and engaging in signaling with their votes. (The successful amendment was appealing to Democrats because, although the repeal would be offset by directing the OMB to use funds already appropriated by Congress that are as yet unspent, the measure protected the Pentagon, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Social Security Administration from any cuts.)

Third, I’ve done some academic research on party whipping activities in Congress, and I’ve found that when leaders are rounding up tough votes, they tend to turn to the far wings of their party. The idea is to reach out to the lawmakers who already see themselves firmly aligned with the party rather than wasting limited resources trying to convince more moderate members who often feel pressured by the conflicting demands of party loyalty and the preferences of constituents back home. The 1099 roll call shows that kind of pattern. Thirteen of the seventeen votes came from lawmakers who fell in the most liberal half of the Democratic caucus during the 111th Senate as ranked on the standard liberal-conservative scale used by political scientists. So you get nay votes from rank-and-file members Sen. Franken, MN (2nd most liberal); Sen. Sanders, VT (6th); Sen. Whitehouse, RI (8th); Sen. Akaka, HI (14th); Sen. Levin, MI (15th); Sen. Lautenberg, NJ (16th); Sen. Reed, RI (18th); Sen. Leahy, VT (21st); Sen. Mikulski, MD (23rd); and Sen. Harkin, IA (25th).

I suspect that Democrats’ cost-benefit calculations went something like this. Some no votes on 1099 repeal might hurt us with the small business community, but the extent of the damage will be contained by the fact that the repeal passes anyway and it does so with the support of the majority of the caucus. The political costs are further minimized because we can turn to members who aren’t up for reelection this year (so the sting should fade by Election Day) and to a handful of members who can, we think, absorb any bad press even though they’re entering reelection campaigns.

These costs are outweighed, the Senate Democrats must have said, by the benefits gained by showing party activists and liberal commentators that Harry Reid can pull together tough votes on health care and – when it really counts - beat back Republican attacks on the Affordable Care Act. So no matter the content of the bill or amendment up for a vote, if it has to do with repealing or reforming part of the health care law, we’re going to register our objections to the whole Republican Repeal Project.

Okay, but why would the Democrats have felt the need to use the 1099 repeal vote, of all things, to send that message? Wouldn’t the party line vote on the McConnell amendment that afternoon have been plenty of messaging for the day?

After all, some reporters, analysts, and commentators have taken the vote on the McConnell amendment as a sign of the Democratic leadership’s ability to get members to hang together on health care votes, even with some senators under intense pressure from voters back home.

I don’t see it that way. As I wrote here, until public opinion on the health care law as a whole changes significantly from where it is now - and where it was on Election Day 2010, the safest bet for the Democrats is to vote against repeal of the entire law. This is true even for Sen. McCaskill, who has received a shellacking back home for her vote that helped pass the law last year. Continuing to support a law that a lot of people oppose is electorally risky. It’s also hard to explain why you were for a law before you were against a law. Just ask John Kerry about that.

And let’s not forget that the actual vote yesterday was a procedural one, a budget point of order about the CBO-estimated increase in the deficit if the 2010 health care law reforms are repealed. On the Senate floor, the Republicans argued that the votes on the point of order were votes on the repeal measure itself, and the Republican talking points after the vote continue to treat the two as indistinguishable. But for Democrats, there is some shelter to be taken in the procedural vote. At-risk Democrats from districts deeply divided over the health care law can claim that they cast a vote for fiscal responsibility (at least in a world where top line CBO estimates for the health care law are taken as realistic). That’s what freshman Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, whose campaign was harshly critical of Obamacare, is busy doing now. While it might not enough be to convince undecided voters of the rectitude of the cause, it’s certainly enough to confuse the issue for most people.

So maybe there’s another message here, one less comforting to Democrats. Maybe the Democratic leadership thought they needed to send a message about the steadiness of Harry Reid’s hand and the party’s resolve with the 1099 vote because the vote on the budget point of order tells us very little about Majority Leader Reid’s confidence that he can hold his caucus together as this fight drags out and senators are forced to take more votes on piecemeal repeal of the law.

Worse yet for the Democrats, maybe the party leadership thought it needed to send a message to its own lawmakers on the Senate floor that afternoon. If that’s the case, the no votes on 1099 repeal were a reminder to Democratic senators about how they should vote on the budget point of order that followed. If you want to stay in good with the party, it’s “No” on repeal. And if that’s the kind of roll call babysitting some Democratic senators require on health care votes, Harry Reid has his work cut for him.