Whichever house of Congress voted first on a health-care bill was always going to make things harder for the other, and last night Nancy Pelosi certainly made things harder for Harry Reid. Whatever bill language Reid is able to finagle out of the two very different bills he is now working to combine, his senators know that the bill will eventually have to be reconciled with the one passed last night by the House, and that House bill would receive nowhere near 60 votes in the Senate. The extremely narrow margin of victory in the House also means Pelosi doesn’t have a lot of maneuvering room, so Reid can’t plausibly tell his members that one thing or another will get fixed in conference, since it’s clear that health care reform is in just as precarious a condition in the House as in the Senate, but over different issues and concerns. Pelosi was able to let 39 of her members avoid voting for this monstrosity, and so to leave them able to tell their voters they were not part of it. Reid can’t afford to give that privilege to even one of his Democratic senators (a number of whom face at least as conservative a constituency as those 39 House Democrats.) He needs every one of them to vote for it.
The trouble for the Democrats is that the Senate was always going to be the more difficult challenge for health-care reform — because its members are not as far to the left on the whole, and because its rules require a supermajority and don’t give the majority leadership nearly as much power over the process. Nancy Pelosi has now made it even more difficult. So while the Democrats certainly took a major step on the old “how a bill becomes law” civics textbook diagram last night, it’s not nearly as clear that they made progress in the real world of legislative strategy. Nancy Pelosi made things a little easier on herself and her members by going first, but may well have made the Democrats’ larger task harder.