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For Democrats, a “Moment of Clarity” on Health Care?

After a couple of very tough weeks, Congressional Democrats seem to be wising up on health care reform.

— First, there’s the news that Democrats seem prepared to drop the pretense of collaborating with Republicans on a health care reform bill. This is long overdue: with the possible exceptions of Mainers Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins**, and perhaps one or two retiring Republicans who can vote their conscience, Republicans have absolutely no incentive to give the Democrats a victory on a health care package. Credit, I guess, goes to Chuck Grassley for basically admitting as much, but the Republicans — who until recently had outmaneuvered Democrats at virtually every stage of the health care debate — made a pretty significant tactical error by giving the Democrats such a good excuse to go it alone. They may also have erred in so aggressively attacking the proposed co-ops provision, which is far weaker than the public option and is a compromise that anyone working in good faith for a “bipartisan” (i.e. weaker) health care bill ought to giddily accept.

— Secondly, there’s this trial balloon, leaked to the Wall Street Journal, about splitting the health care bill into two pieces, with some parts to be passed by reconciliation (requiring only 50 votes plus the Vice President) and others to be passed through ordinary procedure (60 votes required to overcome a filibuster). I don’t think this strategy is quite as genius as it looks: if you’re a senator who objects to the parts of the bill that are supposed to be passed by reconciliation, couldn’t you register that displeasure by filibustering the less controversial parts of the bill when you otherwise approve them? Still, it overcomes the other major problem with reconciliation, which is that nobody knows what would be left in the bill once the Senate Parliamentarian got done with it. It’s probably a bluff, but it’s a better, more credible bluff than the one that the Democrats were hoping to run before.

— One of the other obstacles that Democrats faced in passing a health care package — and one which nobody quite seemed comfortable talking about — is that Ted Kennedy’s vote probably could not be counted upon because of of his ailing health. If Kennedy were to pass away, indeed, Democrats would face roughly a six-month delay until Massachusetts held a special election, during which time Massachusetts would have only one senator. Kennedy, however, is now pressuring the Massachusetts legislature to revise its special elections law to permit an interim gubernatorial appointment until that election takes place (Massachusetts is one of just four states that does not permit an interim appointment — a provision the legislature introduced when it looked like then-governor Mitt Romney might appoint a Republican replacement were John Kerry to become President). From a public policy standpoint, I can’t say I like the idea of changing the rules in midstream. But, if the Massachusetts legislature changes its law (and with roughly 8-to-1 Democratic majorities in both chambers, it probably will), its voters will at least have a couple of opportunities to register their displeasure, either by voting for a Republican to replace Kennedy when the special election occurs, or by voting the legislators out of office.

The Democrats still face a whole host of obstacles in passing a health care bill, but the odds today look a little better than they did 48 hours ago.

** p.s. Speaking of Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, I’m up in Maine on what’s supposed to be a vacation, so I apologize if posting has been somewhat light for the past few days — it will continue to be so through the weekend.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.