Will Moderate Democrats Vote For Health Care Reform Before They Vote Against It?


A handful of moderate Democratic Senators are getting a lot of attention for their wavering stances on health care reform. See, for example, this piece from ABC News:

Democrats may have scored a big victory on the first Senate health care overhaul vote, but party unity lasted only as long as it took to bring down the gavel on Saturday's vote.

Sixty senators—exactly the number needed to pass a bill—voted Saturday night to move forward with debate. But even as they voted yes on this first procedural votes, several Democrats warned they'll vote no on the next vote if the bill isn't changed.

"I'm prepared to vote against moving to the next stage of consideration as long as a government-run public option is included," said Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Neb., who has been a swing Democratic vote on the Senate's bill.

She's one of four Democrats who voted "yes" on bringing the bill to the floor for debate—but who say they'll vote "no" next time if the bill still includes a government-run insurance program.

Since no Republicans support the bill, losing four Democratic votes would mean the bill only has 56 "yes" votes—not enough to pass.

Technically, the bill doesn't need 60 votes to pass. At some point, the Senate will require 60 votes for cloture—which ends debate and allows for a vote on the passage of the bill—but, once 60 Senators vote for cloture, the actual passage could be achieved with just 51 votes. So it's possible that we could see a situation in which those moderates vote for cloture but against the final bill. 

Indeed, given the competing pressures of party (which desperately wants to pass this bill) and polls (which show increasing disapproval of the bill, particularly Lincoln's home state of Arkansas) that moderates face on the bill, that's exactly what polling whiz Nate Silver suggests that Lincoln, who faces a potentially tough re-election bid next year, do. For Lincoln, he argues, "the path of least resistance would seem to be committing to voting for cloture, so that the Democratic base, your colleagues in the Senate, and the national media don't go nuclear on you—but against the underlying bill, which is unpopular in your state."

If it works, it's a neat trick: It allows moderates like Lincoln to support the party without technically supporting the bill. Yet this is not a strategy without risk. The question is whether or not voting for cloture will be percieved as a purely procedural vote—a "vote to allow a vote" or something along those lines—or a vote for passage. Given that once the Senate votes for cloture, passage is virtually guaranteed, I think the better argument is that a vote for cloture is, for all practical purposes, a vote for passage. But if Lincoln and others can convince their constituencies that it isn't, they might be able to satisfy the conflicting demands of both party and constituents.