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House (not Senate) May be Barrier to Health Care

Progressive Democrats are used to focusing their ire on moderate Democrats in the the Senate, who because of the de facto 60-vote environment in the era of the filibuster, have an inordinate amount of power. On health care, however — with the possible exception of Kent Conrad — it has been the Blue Dogs in the House who have been the Democrats’ largest problem. As Jake Tapper somewhat gleefully reports, the mark-up of the House’s health care bill has been blocked for the second straight day in the House’s Energy and Commerce committee by seven Blue Dogs who aren’t ready to approve the bill without further changes.

It’s conceivable, however, that the Democrats could overcome quite a few objections in the House and still pass the health care bill in the Senate. That is, although Pelosi & Co. clearly need to wrangle up a few more votes, they do not necessarily need unanimity or anything particularly close to it. Here’s why:

1. There is a proportionately larger ‘rump’ of conservative Democrats in the House than in the Senate.

The following chart provides the “common-space” DW-NOMINATE scores for members of the current Congress, a measure of ideology that runs from -1 for uberliberal to +1 for uberconservative. (Scores for freshman members of Congress, not yet availble in the DW-NOMINATE database, are extrapolated from ProgressivePunch figures.)

This chart, I’m sure, is a little bit confusing to most of you, but what it suggests is that the ideological makeup of the two chambers is somewhat different, especially on the Democratic side. Whereas the progression of ideologies on the House side is relatively smooth, on the Senate side there is a huge jump between about the 59th most conservative member (Tom Carper of Delaware, who registers at a -.161) and the 63rd most conservative (Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, +.263). The three senators in between Carper and Murkowski are Democrat Ben Nelson (-.015), and Republicans Olympia Snowe (+.095) and Susan Collins (+.115). A tremendous amount of power rests in the hands of these three Senators and these three Senators specifically. Getting any one of them on board is oftentimes the equivalent of getting a couple dozen members of the House on board.

Let’s look at this from another angle: there are six House Democrats (Walt Minnick, Bobby Bright, Travis Childers, Ann Kilpatrick, Gene Taylor and Glenn Nye) more conservative than the most conservative Senate Democrat, Ben Nelson. But there are 39 House Democrats more conservative than the second-most conservative Senate Democrat, Tom Carper. In theory, if everyone from Carper leftward voted for the health care bill, and everyone to his right didn’t, the bill would be approved just barely (219-216) in the House but somewhat overwhelmingly (59-41) in the Senate. Relatedly, if only a majority were required for passage, it would be somewhat easier to pass progressive legislation through the Senate, where the swing vote would be Tim Johnson (-.242), than through the House, where it would be Scott Murphy (-.171).

Of course, 59 votes — or 51 — isn’t usually enough to pass something in the Senate because of the possibility of the filibuster. But that brings us to our second point:

2. The conservative Senate Democrats don’t have to vote for the bill — they just have to not filibuster it.

It’s in fact somewhat common for Senators to vote for cloture (to break a filibuster) but against the underlying bill, or vice versa, although it tends to be less so on major legislation. As our friend Ed Kilgore notes, the Senate leadership clearly seems to be aware of this dynamic and will put a lot of pressure on conservative Democrats like Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu to at least split their votes in this fashion, particularly given the underlying (if probably idle) thereat of reconciliation, which would circumvent the filibuster. Ben Nelson might vote against health care, and he might vote for all sorts of amendments to water the bill down. But would he actually vote to filibuster the bill, which would mean the difference between success and failure for his party? That seems more dubious.

3. The Senate’s bill will be different — and probably somewhat more conservative — than the House’s.

The two chambers have different hang-ups and, as we’ve mentioned, different ideological makeups. Pelsoi, Reid and the committee chairs have to be concerned with drawing up a bill that can pass through their respective chambers. If they can do that, then getting the conference report passed, while no gimme, should be comparatively easy. I’d expect the Senate’s version of the bill to be more conservative than the House’s, particualarly with respect to the funding mechanisms. For instance, I very much doubt that a surtax as high as 5.4 percent on wealthy earners will survive in the Senate version — more likely there will be smaller surtax, coupled with other fundraising mechanisms like ‘sin’ taxes or taxes on insureres. Some House Democrats who might vote against their own chamber’s version of health reform might be willing to vote for the Senate’s.

4. The bystander effect.

The last issue is the matter of leverage. The Blue Dogs’ strength comes in their numbers. Once the number of additional votes required to pass health care can be whittled down to a finite number, Democrats can exert extraordinary pressure on individual members to toe the party line. The health care bill is the signature piece of the Democratic agenda and anyone who doesn’t vote for it ought to be prepared to be frozen out of the party somewhat permanently. Indeed, if health care fails, there seems to me to be a pretty decent chance that some conservative Democrats will flip parties and become Republicans. This just isn’t the case on something like the climate change bill, where geographic considerations play a larger role and the bill will be manifestly harmful to (and unpopular in) certain states and districts.

But while you might be able to muscle one or two or three hedging members into a yea vote on health care (or a vote against a filibuster in the Senate’s case), it’s much harder to do that 40 or so legislators, where there is less individual accountability.

* * *

I realize that this has been a somewhat academic exercise, but the upshot of it is as follows:

1. Yes, the Blue Dogs really do have some leverage here. It’s at least conceivable that the House would be unable to approve health care while the Senate would be.
2. And/but — if the bill passes by a narrow margin in the House (even by just a few votes) that will not necessarily doom its chances of overcoming a filibuster in the Senate. Nor does the fact that the bill is having some trouble in the House necessarily mean all that much in terms of its prospects in the Senate. The Senate Democrats operate within a much more narrow band ideologically — there are proportionately fewer true Blue Dogs, and also proportionately fewer uberliberals. If the White House could get assurances that a few key senators like Nelson, Landireu and Snowe won’t filibuster health care — they don’t actually have to vote for the bill — the Senate landscape actually starts to look reasonably favorable to the bill, possibly more favorable than the House’s.

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