On Saturday night, just after Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) secured enough votes to begin debate on Obamacare, Democrats were beaming — and all I could think about was May 21, 2007. That was the day Reid successfully ushered another monstrosity deemed too big to fail onto the floor: comprehensive immigration reform. A month later, that bill, ridiculed and riddled by amendments, lay lifeless, never to see a final vote. Obamacare, beware.
Reid’s amnesty bill failed for many reasons, ideological as well as tactical. Too much, too fast, too soon was the general consensus amongst its opponents. Like Obamacare, it was the baby bill of a president (Bush) slipping in the polls. It was supposed to be “historic.” And it had some spotty support from Republican senators (John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and others). But when it came time for Reid to cobble together the necessary 60 votes to move toward final passage, only 46 senators backed the motion.
Reid surely remembers who abandoned him at the last minute. In fact, it’s the same group that’s tormenting him now: Sen. Ben Nelson (D., Neb.), Sen. Mary Landrieu (D., La.), and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a moderate Republican. All three voted to start debate on immigration reform, then voted against ending the debate — effectively killing the bill. Walking the tightrope of the political center, not helping Harry, is still these folks’ goal.
Reid, after ponying up $300 million to Landrieu (via Medicaid benefits for Louisiana) this past weekend, got her support for the vote to open debate. Nelson is a different story. He backed Reid in May 2007 to open debate over amnesty, then, over the ensuing month, even after personal calls from President Bush, decided to abandon it. “The bill is not only hopelessly flawed, it is unsalvageable,” Nelson told the New York Times that June. “We have to start over.”
Reid should be worried. Over the weekend, Nelson was back at it, making similar noise over Obamacare. On ABC’s This Week, he told host George Stephanopoulos that if ending debate on Reid’s health-care bill, as is, were proposed, he would have voted “not to end debate. I would have voted no on a cloture vote to end debate. . . . I would not let it get off the floor.”
Collins, along with her fellow Maine GOP moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe, has also hedged on whether she’d support Obamacare for months now. Many Democrats have whispered that Collins could be persuaded to vote with them. They thought that with immigration, too, of course, only to be stood up. That time, Collins, worriedly looking toward her 2008 reelection campaign, abandoned Reid at the last minute, saying that she didn’t think that “the bill struck the right balance.” Look for Snowe, up for reelection in 2012, to do the same.
Once the Senate reconvenes on November 30, Reid will be back at the same game: keeping together his 60-member caucus in order to have any chance of passing health reform. It won’t be easy. In order to preserve the underlying bill, Reid and friends will have to vote down some amendments they find agreeable. If Democrats bicker and break up over amendments, Obamcare is doomed.
Republicans will try to stir tensions across the aisle by offering amendments appealing to undecided Democrats, addressing issues such as premium increases, tort reform, and Medicare cuts. For example, some Democrats may not agree with the bill’s mandate to cut a half-trillion dollars from Medicare, so they’ll be open to listening to GOP solutions for removing the cuts. Reid knows, however, that if his bill’s Medicare stipulations are removed, then the bill will fall, because half of its promised revenue will disappear. With unemployment rising, some Democrats may also be worried about raising taxes in the middle of a recession. Yet again, if the tax plan of Reid’s bill — taxing people for not buying insurance — is taken out, the bill will fall. Reid will also be worrying about his own career. He is expected to face a fierce re-election fight next year.
And don’t forget what a recess can do. After voting to start debate on immigration in May 2007, the Senate went on its Memorial Day recess. On-the-fence lawmakers went home and caught hell from constituents. When they came back to the upper chamber in early June, many flooded Reid with amendments while he tried to move toward cloture. When Reid moved to end debate on June 7, he only got 45 votes in support (37 Democrats), while 50 senators were opposed. “The bill’s over with. The bill’s gone. I mean what else can I do?” Reid asked reporters following the vote.
Reid’s amnesty bill wasn’t dead, though, just on “life support,” as then–GOP senator Arlen Specter (Pa.) liked to say at the time. Reid kept at it, and Bush came to the Senate to beg Republicans over lunch to support his derailed issue du jour. Most Republicans, though, shrugged. Their amendments were working. Reid and Bush were in hot water.
Later that month, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who supported immigration reform, huddled with Reid about their options. They knew that they couldn’t survive another recess, and the July 4 holiday was looming. So, on the ides of June, they met with key senators and issued a joint statement agreeing to bring back debate on the immigration bill after wrapping up business on the energy bill.
On June 26, the Senate, by a vote of 64 to 35, moved to bring the amnesty bill back onto the floor. Then, quickly, things collapsed. On June 27, the amendments proposed by both GOP and Democratic senators failed: Kit Bond (Mo.), Jim Webb (Va.), and Jim DeMint (S.C.) all proffered tough amendments, only to be swatted down. Cries of “you can’t do nothing,” rained from K Street, La Raza, and liberal bloggers. “The price of failure will be hundreds of more people dying in the desert,” said Eliseo Medina, an executive vice president of the SEIU, as the debate withered.
Yet nothing happened. The following day, “comprehensive immigration reform” died not with a bang, but a whimper. Reid didn’t get his 60 votes to end debate. He fell 14 votes short.
Such is life in the Senate. It’s easy to celebrate little victories on early cloture votes. As Reid knows from his immigration-debate experience, starting debate is easy, ending it is not. The Senate, now on Thanksgiving break, will return to Obamacare next week. Whether Reid can shepherd the bill to a better fate remains to be seen. The GOP is doing everything it can to block him.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) tells NRO that he’s already planning to have an arsenal of amendments at his disposal, as is McConnell. Fending them off, while keeping tabs on leery Democrats, will be Reid’s challenge. Whether Reid succeeds will depend on whether he learned anything from 2007’s immigration battle, namely that as much the president may want something, you can’t play by his clock. In the U.S. Senate, if you want to win, you don’t rush.
And in politics, you either learn from history, or you become it.
– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.