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Health Care Bill Has Little Margin for Error in House

Last night, the Energy and Commerce Committee voted 31-28 to approve a compromise version of the Democrats’ health care reform bill. As the Energy and Commerce Committee happens to be quite representative of the House as a whole, this vote is useful in forecasting the bill’s overall prospects. Specifically, as it did in the committee, the compromise appears to be favored to win the support of the full House, although probably by a very narrow margin.

Memebership on the Energy and Commerce Committee consists of 8 Blue Dog Democrats (14%), 29 “regular” Democrats (47%), and 23 Republicans (39%). This is nearly identical to the overall House, which has 52 Blue Dogs (12%), 204 non-Blue Dog Democrats (47%) and 178 Republicans (41%). By contrast, the other two House Committees that had approved earlier versions of the Democrats’ reform package — Ways and Means and Education and Labor, underrepresent Blue Dogs, with just three and one Blue Dog members, respectively. Non-Blue Dog Democrats had majorities on these committees, which they do not on Energy and Commerce or in the overall House. (Note: the original version of this post incorrectly stated that there were seven, rather than eight, Blue Dogs in the Energy and Commerce Committee).

As suggested, then, that the bill received the approval of 52.5 percent of committee members (31 of 59) is probably a fairly good over-under for how the bill would fare when brought before the full House, which would translate to approval by a 228-206 margin.

It is worth, however, being a bit more exacting about this. To do so, I built a simple probit model that attempted to predict the outcome of votes on the Energy and Commerce Committee’s markup based on two variables: a member’s DW-NOMINATE score (these scores run from -1 for extremely liberal to +1 for extremely conservative; Freshman members have their scores extrapolated from Progressive Punch data) and whether or not they are listed as a supporter for the public option on Howard Dean’s website. A variety of other variables that we tested were not statistically significant.

This model forecasts very narrow passage for the health care bill, with about 36 Democratic nay votes and 2 Republican yeas (most likely Joseph Cao of LA-2 and Frank LoBiondo of NJ-2), which would translate to approval by a 222-212 margin overall. Projections for individual members are contained at the end of this article.

There are relatively few swing votes on health care; 177 members (including 3 Democrats) are projected to have less than a 5 percent chance of voting yea, whereas 191 members (all Democrats) are projected to have greater than a 95 percent chance of doing so. Still, it’s the 66 remaining Congressmen who will make the difference between passage and failure.

There is also the very real possibility that some liberal Democrats — perhaps as many as 57 — would vote against the Energy and Commerce Committee’s markup if provisions on the public option are not strengthened. Because we did not see any liberal nay votes in the Commerce Committee — Henry Waxman whipped them once it became clear that the overall margin would be close — this possibility is not reflected in the numbers described here. While I won’t editorialize on the progressives’ strategy, what seems clear is that this bill probably cannot get substantially more liberal without risking failure on a floor vote in the House (indeed, even the current compromise is not assured of passing). If the progressives want a stronger public option than the one that the Commerce Committee passed, they should probably be prepared to make trade-offs in other areas, such as slightly weakening the employer mandate.

Projections for individual members are listed below. All Democrats not listed have greater than a 99.5% chance of voting for the Commerce Committee’s markup; all Republicans not listed have less than a 0.5% chance of doing so. ‘EC’ indicates a member’s vote on the Energy and Commerce Committee’s markup; as you’ll see, the model guessed wrong in a couple of cases, but the errors cancel out.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.