Posted by: Jeff | January 29, 2010

Did Health Care Reform Just Die With A Wimper?

Rahm Emanuel, the White House’s chief of staff, has told The New York Times that, going forward, health care reform will be taking a backseat to the jobs bill, the bank fee and financial regulation. Ezra Klein is exceedingly bummed by this news, and I don’t blame him.

It is very, very, very important to be clear on what the death of health-care reform looks like. It is not a vote that goes against the Democrats. It is not an admission that the White House has moved on from the subject. It is continued statements of commitment from the key players paired with a continued stretching of the timetable. Like everything else in life, policy initiatives grow old and die, even if people still love them.

The timetable Emanuel is laying out makes little sense. The jobs bill will take some time. Financial regulation will take much longer. Let’s be conservative and give all this four months. Is Emanuel really suggesting that he expects Congress to return to health-care reform in the summer before the election? Forgetting whether there’s political will at that point, there’s no personnel: Everyone is home campaigning.

Moreover, there’s a time limit on health-care reform. The open reconciliation instructions the Senate could use to modify the bill expire when the next budget is (there’s disagreement over the precise rule on this) considered or passed. That is to say, the open reconciliation instructions expire soon. Democrats could build new reconciliation instructions into the next budget, but that’s going to be a heavy lift. The longer this takes, the less likely it is to happen. And Emanuel just said that the administration’s preference is to let it take longer. If I were a doctor, I’d downgrade health care’s prognosis considerably atop this evidence.

Like others, I’ve been encouraged by what looks like stiffening spines amongst the Democrats in the House. But until the Senate assures everyone it will do its part by passing fixes to the bill through reconciliation, we’re not going to get anywhere. Which is a problem, because I just don’t see the Congressional leadership taking the initiative on this without the White House acting as facilitator. And it looks like the White House just signaled they have no intention of taking up that role.

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