The Summit Cometh
The stakes are high, but the task is eminently doable.


Tevi Troy

The machinations leading up to the Blair House summit have resembled a chess match in which one side – the Democrats — can’t decide who gets to move the pieces on its side of the board. Both the House and Senate passed health-care bills about two months ago, yet President Obama’s plan, released earlier this week, did not have the support of either chamber’s Democrats when it was released. In fact, congressional Democrats had been asking to see an advance version of the plan but were rebuffed by the White House. In addition, as the New York Times reported, the main reason that President Obama had to — finally — release a White House plan is that the Democrats in the House and Senate could not come to an agreement, and the president had promised that he would post a Democratic proposal 72 hours before the summit. As a result of this new, third proposal, we now have even less Democratic unity than we had before Obama stepped in. When the summit takes place, this could lead to the awkward spectacle of Obama arguing for his plan, Reid and his Democratic colleagues arguing for the Senate bill, and Pelosi’s people arguing for the House bill.

Another problem with the president’s proposal is Congressional Budget Office’s inability to score it before the summit. CBO’s explanation for this was pretty devastating: They said that the proposal did not have enough detail to be scored, and even if there had been enough detail, they did not have enough time to come up with a score. Given that we have known the summit was coming for about a month, this appears to be inexcusable. Yet the White House may have waited so long because they feared the score they were going to get. Budget experts I have talked to think CBO is likely to find that the president’s proposal will cost considerably more than the $950 billion the White House claimed, likely over a trillion dollars. It is not clear why “under a trillion dollars” has become a Democratic standard for frugality, but that appears to be the standard President Obama has set, and not having a CBO score in time for the summit avoids potential awkwardness on that front.

On the political side, Democrats and their allies have been arguing that reconciliation is a perfectly legitimate legislative approach, but it was not long ago that they were arguing, in somewhat hysterical tones, that reconciliation represented the end of democracy as we know it. According to this video on the Breitbart site, then-Senator Biden said that procedures that circumvent the 60-vote hurdle are “ultimately an example of the arrogance of power,” adding that he prayed that “when the Democrats take back control we don’t make the kind of naked power grab you are doing.” Even though Democrats will conveniently manage to swallow their cognitive dissonance on this issue, reconciliation still presents significant procedural and political hurdles. On the procedural side, the Senate parliamentarian would need to decide if various provisions are germane to budgetary questions, a standard that only some of the Democratic health-overhaul provisions will be likely to meet. On the political side, it is not clear if the Democratic leaders in the House or the Senate have the votes to pass their bills under the reconciliation mechanism. Furthermore, as we get later and later into 2010, supporting an unpopular health overhaul will get harder and harder for vulnerable Democrats.