What is going on in Washington? The panic-induced response to Scott Brown's special election victory has pushed President Obama and Congressional Democrats into an obviously incoherent health care strategy:
President Obama signaled on Wednesday that he might be willing to scale back his proposed health care overhaul to a version that could attract bipartisan support, as the White House and Congressional Democrats grappled with a political landscape transformed by the Republican victory in the Massachusetts Senate race.
“I would advise that we try to move quickly to coalesce around those elements of the package that people agree on,” Mr. Obama said in an interview on ABC News, notably leaving near-universal insurance coverage off his list of core goals...
On Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders said they were weighing several options. But some lawmakers in both parties began calling for a scaled-back bill that could be adopted quickly with bipartisan support, and Mr. Obama seemed to suggest that if he could not pass an ambitious health care bill, he would be willing to settle for what he could get. In the interview with ABC, he cited two specific goals: cracking down on insurance industry practices that hurt consumers and reining in health costs.
“We know that we need insurance reform, that the health insurance companies are taking advantage of people,” Mr. Obama said. “We know that we have to have some form of cost containment because if we don’t, then our budgets are going to blow up, and we know that small businesses are going to need help so that they can provide health insurance to their families. Those are the core, some of the core elements to this bill.”
Republican Congressional aides said a compromise bill could include new insurance industry regulations, including a ban on denying coverage based on pre-existing medical conditions, as well as aid for small businesses for health costs and possible steps to restrict malpractice lawsuits. But as Mr. Obama noted on ABC, a pared-down package imposing restrictions on insurers might make coverage unaffordable, which is one reason he prefers a broad overhaul...
The idea of "a scaled-back bill that could be adopted quickly with bipartisan support" makes no sense:
1. Why would liberals in the House support a stripped-down bill? They already oppose the Senate bill as too conservative. If they're willing to accept more moderate legislation, the House could just pass the Senate bill and the process would be over.
2. Why would Mitch McConnell or the GOP caucus support a stripped-down bill? Republicans wouldn't cut a deal when the Democrats were in a position of strength -- there's no reason to think they would abandon their scorched-earth strategy right when it seems to be inflicting damage on the Democrats. As the New York Times notes, when McConnell was asked if the health care bill was dead, he said, “I sure hope so."
3. Does anyone think Congress has the patience to go through the legislative process again with a new bill?
4. What is the magical proposal that will attract bipartisan support? As Jonathan Chait correctly notes, any compromise that includes a ban on denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions but lacks a mandate and subsidies won't work:
Cantor does say he wants to ban discrimination against people with preexisting conditions, but for reasons I've explained over and over again, you can't do that without an individual mandate, and you can't do that without subsidies for those who can't afford the mandate. So the preexisting condition stuff is just a way of posturing for a popular goal without admitting you oppose the necessary steps to accomplish it.
The Democrats have very few options besides (a) passing a bill on a party-line vote or (b) abandoning health care reform. The panic has made the party desperate to believe that a bipartisan compromise is possible, but I don't see how it can work.
Update 1/21 12:20 PM: Chait makes a similar point:
[T]he chances of [a scaled-back proposal offered by Ezra Klein], or something remotely like it, passing into law are approximately zero. The Democrats' biggest worry right now, I have been reliably informed (Yes -- reporting! I try not to make a habit of it), is that they think health care has just taken too much time. The want to pivot to an economic message. Writing a new, even smaller health care bill takes a lot of time. There are delicate compromises with interest groups who have the power to destroy legislation if they feel threatened. There are negotiations in two chambers. The senate is feeling incredibly skittish right now and probably unwilling to vote for anything stronger than a resolution saying that if anybody dies because they couldn't afford medical treatment it would be a darn shame. (And that resolution would come after months of begging Olympia Snowe to cast the filibuster-breaking vote.)
There are only two options on health care: Something that involves passing the Senate bill through the House, and nothing. There's no fantasy moderate bipartisan alternative. Once Congress gets that through its head, I think -- I don't know but I think -- they'll make the obvious choice.