Sunday, March 28, 2010

2010 Elections -- Where We Stand

It's been almost a month since I provided an update as this space was heavily focused on health care reform legislation as it weaved its way to an endgame in congress. So, let's assess where things stand.

The U.S. Senate
There have been tons of polls in the past month, but the races have actually been relatively stable. We have 3 ratings changes, so I'll discuss those first, then look at the other races with available polls:

Pennsylvania -- moves back from Toss-Up to Lean GOP Pick-Up. This one has been back and forth between these two ratings categories this year, but Pat Toomey has led in the last 3 polls, with the last two showing 5 and 6 point margins respectively. He appears to be modestly ahead.

Nevada -- moves back from Lean GOP Pick-Up to Likely GOP Pick-Up. Reid has trailed by double digits in the past two polls - this one has flipped back and forth between these two categories as the lead has stabilized at around 10 points (the last two polls show Reid down 11), which is my cut-off for the category.

Wisconsin -- moves from Lean Democratic Hold to Toss-Up. This change has more to do with the news than the polling. The polling narrative hasn't changed -- Feingold trails Tommy Thompson by a small amount if Thompson runs and destroys all other GOP comers. This move reflects the increasing likelihood that Thompson will run, bolstered by reports from Thompson's inner circle that he is leaning towards running.

Other races that do not have a rating change, but have new polls:
Arkansas -- Blanche Lincoln is still down 7 to 8% against GOP challengers, according to a Rasmussen poll last week. Still a Lean GOP Pick-Up.

Indiana -- Many different potential match-ups, but the GOP is lead by 7 to 18 points depending on the candidates and the poll. This stays a Lean GOP Pick-Up, but could tilt further right later on, depending on the match-up.

California -- Barbara Boxer leads likely GOPer Carly Fiorna by 1%, 1% and 6% in the latest three polls. This is a close race, but remains a Lean DEM Hold.

Connecticut -- Blumenthal still leads by a super comfortable 26 to 33 points against all GOP candidates in the latest polls. Still a Safe DEM Hold.

New York (Gillebrand) -- same narrative -- Gillebrand continues to narrowly trail George Pataki and lead big against other potential GOP candidates. If Pataki announces, this goes to a Lean GOP Pick-Up, if he does not it becomes a Likely or Safe Democratic Hold. For now, we leave it a Toss-Up.

New Hampshire -- Ayotte is up 10 points in the latest Rasmussen poll, right at our cut-off. The prior two polls showed her lead in the high single digits. This stays a Lean GOP Pick-Up for now, but it is getting closer to the "Likely" category.

Kentucky -- potential GOPers for Jim Bunning's open seat lead likely DEM candidates by 5 to 9 points in latest polling. Stays a Lean GOP Hold.

Ohio -- Portman still up by 5 to 6 points, a margin that has been very consistent this year. It stays a Lean GOP Hold.

Missouri -- Blunt still +6% in the latest available poll, which is similar to earlier polling. Still a Lean GOP Hold.

North Carolina -- Burr's lead to retain his seat continues to grow. The latest Rasmussen poll has him at +16%. This stays a Likely GOP Hold.

Florida -- the race has closed a little. Rubio still comfortably leads Crist for the nomination and leads by a narrowing 11 to 14% in the general. This is still a Likely GOP Hold, but seems like less of a lock than a few months ago.

Iowa -- Grassley leads all comers by 19 to 29%. Still a Safe GOP Hold.

So this leaves us with:
(1) Democratic Holds (8)
Safe (4)
Connecticut, Maryland, New York (Schumer), Vermont

Likely (3)
Washington, Hawaii, Oregon

Lean (1)

(2) Potential Democratic Pick-Ups (0)

(3) Potential GOP Pick-Ups (10)
Democratic Controlled Toss-Ups (3)
Wisconsin, New York (Gillebrand), Illinois

Lean Pick-Up (5)
Arkansas, Delaware, Indiana, Colorado, Pennsylvania

Likely Pick-Up (1)

Safe Pick-Up (1)
North Dakota

(4) GOP Holds (18)
Lean (5)
New Hampshire, Kentucky, Ohio, Arizona, Missouri

Likely (5)
North Carolina, Georgia, Alaska, Kansas, Florida

Safe (8)
Louisiana, Iowa, South Dakota, Alabama, Idaho, Oklahoma, South Carolina Utah

Net Projection: GOP of 7 to 10 Seats

Best Case GOP (all leaners): GOP +11 Seats
Best Case DEM (all leaners): DEM +3 Seats

A few observations -- the GOP is approaching the upper-limit of what is possible in the mid-terms. The central case is actually pretty darn close to their best case -- with the exception of the 3 toss-up states and the California race that still Leans Democratic, they aren't many more competitive races to pick off. The other observation is that this is the first projection that shows the GOP with the potential to retake the Senate. They would need 10 seats to have a majority, or possibly 9 if they could peel off a switch in caucus loyalties from Independent Joe LIeberman or outcast moderate Democrat Ben Nelson. It is still not the most likely scenario, but the path is now plausible.

The House
In the House, our widest margin yet for the GOP in our average of averages, with the generic ballot question standing at GOP +5.6%. This would imply:

GOP Pick-Up of 50 Seats
Such a win would comfortably give the GOP control of the House, but as I've said before, this projection is a lot more prone to variation than the Senate projection and it has swung back and forth between more modest 25-30 seat losses and the heavier losses projecting now.

The Cook Political Report is tracking the 113 most competitive individual House races, 18 of which are Republican and 95 of which of Democratic. Of those, Cook presently projects 65 for the Democrats (almost all holds), 19 for the Republicans and 29 which are toss-ups.

This would imply a GOP pick-up range of +1 to +30 seats. However, if you throw in the "lean" races (of which there are 32 -- 29 currently held by Democrats and 3 currently held by Republicans), that range expands to GOP -1 to +60 seats. That is probably a more realistic range for what may happen, ranging from something close to a wash (unlikely, but possible) to a massive GOP landslide (also unlikely, but probably more possible than the wash.)

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Obama's First Decisively Positive Month? Not in the Polls....

The Slow Slide Continues
So how is my thesis from a couple of weeks ago that President Obama might finally be turning a corner in polling looking now? Not so great.

The President's polling averages for the past two weeks have hung near the zero line, briefly dipping negative before turning back to mildly positive. In total, not a whole lot to get excited about. Most of this polling took place prior to the signing of the health care bill, although there is no immediate evidence of movement in either direction following the signing.

They aren't a disaster, mind you, but there is a continued trend...and it isn't an improving one.

When you filter out the noise and look at the monthly numbers, you see the trend clearly...President Obama has lost ground in the polls every month of his presidency, except for one, which was flat (it was technically a mathematical increase, but of less than 0.1%.)

What Would This Mean for an Election?
Since re-election campaigns tend to largely be votes about the incumbent more than a comparative vote between two contenders, approval ratings are a reasonable proxy for vote totals. So if an election were held today, how would President Obama fare?

It would be close, to be sure...

He won 365 electoral votes in 2008.

Let's immediately subtract the one vote he won in Nebraska.
Florida is gone: minus 27 electoral votes
So are North Carolina and Indiana: minus 26 more
Ohio is probably a loser too, although a closer one: minus 20 more

This leaves the President with a base of 291 electoral votes and some toss-ups to defend. But, wait, the 2010 census will be done, let's see what that does:
New York losses 2 votes
Massachusetts, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Iowa each lose 1
California and Nevada gain 1
(there are other changes, but they are in GOP states and we are tracking potential Obama votes)

So the President's new base reflects a loss of 6 and a gain of 2 electoral votes or a net loss of 4, leaving him with 287 electoral votes.

Now for those pesky toss-ups....the President has to defend the battleground states of:
Virginia (13 votes)
Colorado (9 votes)
Iowa (now 6 votes)
New Mexico (5 votes)
Nevada (now 6 votes)

He still needs 270 to win, so he could lose Iowa, New Mexico and Nevada if he holds the other two. Or he could lose Virginia and run the rest of the board and still win. If he losses Colorado, he could lose on of Iowa, New Mexico or Nevada and still win. So there are plenty of winning combinations, but he does need to defend and Virginia is the most critical state.

So what does this exercise tell us? In a close election in 2012, Virginia and Colorado are likely to be VERY important. Expect lots of mile high and Hampton Roads visits in 2012. It also shows the importance of Ohio -- while the Democrats can construct a win without it, the GOP has no reasonable path to victory without that state.

Enough of this 2012 stuff when we have a perfectly good election coming up this November. My projection updates next post.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Reconciliation Bill Passes the Senate, Then the House Again, A Pink Slip for Harry Reid?, Public Support Growing

Reconciliation Bill Will Be Law with the President's John Hancock
The Senate passed the reconciliation bill, which modifies the new health care reform law to remove unseemly deals struck in the Senate favoring Nebraska and Louisiana, but also waters down the high cost insurance tax and ramps up the subsidizes for the insured, passed the Senate by a 56-43 vote in the wee hours of the morning, after what could only be described as a barrage of proposed GOP amendments and challenges (I counted 53 separate roll call votes related to the measure.) The GOP did not entirely fail, they found two technical violations of reconciliation provisions which caused minor modifications to the bill. This is significant only in that the bill is now not identical to the bill passed by the House on Sunday and the measure therefore headed back to the House for re-approval. The Senate vote saw all Republicans opposed, joined by three Democrats -- expected defectors Blanche Lincoln (AR) and Ben Nelson (NE) and unexpected defector Mark Pryor (AR), a guy who I had no prior knowledge of as being an at-risk vote and someone who had voted with the DEMs every previous time on health care. No matter, as only 51 votes were required for passage.

The bill then moved back to the House, where a hurried rule was thrown together in the House and the House passed the Senate-modified version by a vote of 220-207, an identical number of aye votes that the package got on Sunday. It now moves to the President for signature.

A Pink Slip for Reid and A Promotion for Pelosi?
An independent friend of mine who tends to be dispassionate about these sorts of things, wryly observed to me yesterday that after the health care debate of the past year, "Harry Reid deserves to be fired and Nancy Pelosi deserves a promotion". I agree with the sentiment. Pelosi's careful navigation of the waters to get the health care bill done reveals the depth of her politic effectiveness. Contrast this with the fumbling and PR disasters of Harry Reid from the past year and it is clear - the Democrats have but one effective leader in congress.

Harry Reid may well be fired...fired by the voters of Nevada. He is trailing in the polls and could well lose not only his majority leader status but indeed his seat, in November. And I certainly won't shed a tear for him.

Nancy Pelosi probably cannot get a promotion. Being Speaker of the House in undoubtedly the second most powerful position in the United States Government. Though it is second in line for the Presidency, after the Vice President, the Vice President has but one official power (breaking ties in the Senate), whereas the Speaker has broad discretion to manage the business of the House.

Everybody Likes a Winner
A post-signing poll indicates that the American people, while still heavily divided, now narrowly favor the new health care law. Conducted by Gallup, it indicates the public now supports the bill by 49% to 40%. This just illustrates the silliness of the notion that this bill would be the death of the Democrats. The Democrats were dying for NOT getting their business done and had they failed to pass a bill, would have been saddled with the dual problems of having voted for a bill for which people would see no tangible result (and would therefore be likely to stay opposed to) and infuriating their base for not getting anything done.

I'm certainly not saying that the Democrats won't lose seats in November as they surely will. But in my mind, they are clearly better off for having gotten the health care bill done than they would have been without it.

Thanks for tuning in on the historic night of House passage. We had 155 visitors to the site on Sunday, the highest total since I began keeping track in January of 2009 (although I certainly suspect our readership on election night, 2008 was higher), eclipsing the 131 visitors we had on election night 2009. I am humbled and honored to be a source of information as the country grapples with important issues and elections.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Obama Signs Health Care Bill, I'm with Gibbs on Biden, Time for the GOP to Grow Up

Obama Signs Health Care Legislation
Today was truly an historic day, as the President signed into law H.R. 3590, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. In what may well be the biggest day of the Obama Presidency, the President finally got his health care bill.

Let's not oversell it - as I've said before, this is not the biggest new social program since Medicare, that honor belongs to George W. Bush's drug benefit for seniors. It certainly isn't the biggest expansion of government in our lifetimes, that honor would surely belong to the start of the Iraq war. It isn't the biggest new bureaucracy in decades, that honor belongs to the Department of Homeland Security.

But, it is, as Vice President Joe Biden so uncomfortable said, "a f***ing big deal". It's a big deal because it will dramatically increase access to health care for 32 million Americans. It is a big deal because it will end the job paralysis caused by pre-existing condition exclusions and the fear that the loss of a job causes to those with medical problems. And it's a big deal because it fulfills the moral obligation of a wealthy nation to care for its people.

It doesn't do enough, or even much, on cost control. It's provisions to require insurance are weak. There is no public option. It doesn't abandon the flawed employer-provided model. It doesn't address the anti-U.S. pricing practices of the drug industry. There is a lot that I would like it to do that it does not. But it is a big deal. A f***ing big deal.

Gibbs Plays it Right
The only comment on our gaffe-prone Vice President's latest on mic gaffe? Robert Gibbs tweets "yes, Mr. Vice President, you are right" and the White House refers all questions to that tweet. Couldn't agree more.

Grow Up, GOP
There are lots of legitimate reasons to disagree with the Democratic approach on health care. If you are a true believer in the power of markets, a small government person, a true libertarian, a fiscal conservative, what have you, then this bill will not appeal to you. The GOP had ever right to vote against a bill that runs against their principles. You made your points, emphatically. You lost because you lost the November 2008 elections and badly. You lost because the people didn't give you the power to stop this bill, whether they presently like the bill or not.

Now is the time to grow up.

The health care bill is law. It is flawed. You've been quick to point out some of the more ugly flaws...the Cornhusker Kickback, the Louisiana Purchase, etc. Now, out of spite, you are going to stand in the way of repealing those same things of which you were so intently critical? What I'm watching right now on the Senate floor is a bad joke. It is pure sour grapes from the GOP. There is very little credible argument that the reconciliation bill makes the health care law, and it is now a law, worse. Yet the GOP obstructs. To what end? So that we can keep the Senate bill that they panned? John McCain has taken to the press saying the GOP won't cooperate with the Democrats on ANYTHING this year, regardless of if they agree ideologically. How childish.

I said several months ago, concerned about runaway deficits, that if I did not see a credible deficit reduction plan out of the White House prior to November that I would strongly consider voting Republican to check government spending. The GOP is trying their best to take that option off the table for me. The people deserve better.

Speak out against the bill you opposed, absolutely. Campaign against Democrats who voted for it, that's completely a fair debate. Campaign on repealing it? Sure. But blocking the improvements that YOU sought? Openly obstructing things you agree with? And don't start with...back in 200x, Democrats wouldn't play ball with George Bush on xxxx...the two wrongs make a right argument is rotten to the core.

Get over it.

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Reconciliation Bill Passed, Health Care in the House is Done

11:42 PM
The House has passed the bill of reconciliation "fixes" 220-211. Interestingly, this is one vote more than for passage of the Senate bill, meaning that there is one Democrat that voted against the Senate bill but then voted for the reconciliation bill.

The Senate bill will now move to the President's desk, be signed early this week, and become law.

The reconciliation fixes now move to the Senate, which Majority Leader Reid has said will take the bill up this week. The Senate fight over reconciliation hasn't received a lot of attention so far, with all eyes on the House, but that is about to change. Reid will have to figure out a way to manage the bill through an onslaught of GOP amendments designed to pick off Democratic votes and make the bill different from the bill the House passed, forcing the House to take the issue back up. But that is a fight for another day.

Almost 11 hours after the House gaveled open this rare Sunday session, it is finally done with the business of health care. The House is voting on two unrelated bills now, which are not particularly interesting, so I'm calling it a night. President Obama is slated to make a statement in a few minutes for the true die-hards.

More on the Senate action this week.

Thanks for following along tonight, as you always do....Google tells me we have already had 138 visitors to the site tonight, showing that once again, when big political news is breaking, you come to this site. Thanks again.

Have a great night...lots more politics to come!

Motion to Recommit Fails

11:22 PM
The motion to recommit the reconciliation bill has failed 232-199, a far wider margin than the passage of the House bill. Now, on to the last vote -- on passage of the reconciliation bill. Then, a couple of other procedural votes on what I believe are unrelated matters and we will be calling it an evening.

Stupak Beats Down the GOP

11:00 PM
After the GOP submitted a motion to recommit the reconciliation bill to include a more explicit abortion funding ban, a move that would effectively torpedo the reconciliation bill, as the abortion rule is ineligible for modification under reconciliation, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), fresh off his deal with the administration, takes to the floor with an impassioned plea to defeat the motion to recommit. It is a dramatic moment, with Stupak, a frequent agitator in the debate, standing with his fellow Democrats.

It's Official

10:49 PM
By a 219-212 vote, the Senate bill has the end, the DEMs got one more vote than I projected, but I was darn close in my count. This bill becomes law when the President signs.

Now on to the reconciliation votes....

216 Threshold Passed

10:45 PM
The "aye" votes have crossed the 216 votes required for passage. There are two minutes left in the vote, so technically, someone could still change his or her vote, so the passage is not yet official...but it will be shortly.

The President gets his victory.

Senate Bill Up First

10:36 PM
The most significant vote of the night, approval of the Senate bill as passed, is underway. If this passes, President Obama will have legislation to sign. The House will then take up two or maybe three votes on the reconciliation measure meant to modify the bill. But this is the "money" vote -- if this one passes, the others will pass.

Let's Start Voting!

10:31 PM
Pelosi has finished speaking. There should be a little administrative wrangling and then some voting.

Highest C-SPAN Ratings Ever?

I wonder if today will be the highest ratings that C-SPAN has ever had. The only other debate that I can think of since the inception of C-SPAN that rivals this in terms of public interest was the Clarence Thomas confirmation vote in the Senate. I'll research it in the coming week when the ratings are released.

Boehner Done, Pelosi on the Stage

10:17 PM
Nancy Pelosi has now taken the floor, in the rare act, reserved for important legislation, of the speaker addressing the House on the floor.

Boehner's speech was a rallying cry for freedom for the GOP. To be honest, it was a little Glenn Beck-ish. He appeared near tears when he asked "have you read the reconciliation bill? Have you read the manager's amendment? No you haven't!" But, similar to Beck, he got the faithful going.

Pelosi's speech is a bit of a snoozer so far.

On to the Minority Leader and the Speaker of the House

10:04 PM
All of the official time for debate has expired, save for the 1 ceremonial minute reserved on each side for the Minority Leader and the Speaker of the House. Of course this 1 minute isn't really a minute, both are essentially afforded unlimited time to make their remarks, not by rule, but by tradition of the House. Minority Leader Boehner has just begun his remarks. Speaker Pelosi with follow. Then, after over a year of debate in the Obama Presidency (and decades of debate prior), the House will vote on the plan.

This Has Been a Long Slog

9:33 PM
The House gaveled in 8 and a half hours ago. This has been a LONG debate today. There are just over 20 minutes of time remaining between the two sides, plus whatever time the Minority Leader takes. I'm ready for a vote.

Rep. Paul Ryan, GOP Rock Star

9:11 PM
By far the best GOP speech of the night to this point has been given by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). A rising star, who is also a GOP representative on the deficit reduction panel, as well as one of the few guys on the right who has proposed his own set of comprehensive health care reforms. He spoke with great clarity in moral, sweeping terms that were quite compelling. This guy is clearly a rising star in the out for him down the road.

The Rapid-Fire Nature of the House

8:57 PM
Most of the dramatic debates of my lifetime have taken place in the U.S. Senate, not the U.S. House -- the key nominations and the critical close votes typically have taken place in the Senate versus the House. So, it is interesting, as a pivotal close vote takes place in the House to note the differences.

House debates are simply less fun. More members, less time, more rapid fire. 1 and 2 minute speeches barely scratch the surface of the content of the bill, as opposed to the hour-long discussions that frequently take place on the Senate floor.

The House is certainly more efficient, but this debate is a lot less fun to watch than the dramatic moments in the Senate. There is something to that old line about the "world's most deliberative body".

By my count, the GOP has about 28 minutes of time left and the DEMs just less than 21 minutes. But we won't be voting in 49 minutes because of the extended transition times and the consent requests. Expect the voting to begin between 10:30 and 11:00 and the House to gavel closed between 11:30 and midnight.

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) Lights It Up

8:12 PM
Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) sparked a controversy that ground debate to a halt for several minutes as he directly addressed GOP members (a violation of House protocol -- all remarks are to be addressed to the Speaker or Chair) and accused them of lying about the Democratic position on veterans benefits. It was a very odd moment as there had frankly been very little discussion of veterans benefits in the preceding debate.

Rep. Pascrell eventually withdrew his remarks after about a 5 minute pause in debate.

Democratic Themes

Last post, I did the GOP themes -- here are the primary Democratic ones:
(1) 45,000 annual deaths
The claim goes something like this -- 45.000 people die every year because they don't have insurance. This bill saves lives by closing this gap.

(2) Pre-existing conditions
This bill will prevent insurance companies from refusing to cover you or drop you because of a pre-existing condition.

(3) Regulating the insurance industry
The argument goes like this: the insurance industry is for profit and puts profit above health. Without regulation, they will make continue to make decisions contrary to health.

The Recurrent GOP Themes

The prominent themes from the GOP fit mostly into the following categories (I won't address them here today as I've talked about them in the past)

(1) 10 Years of Taxes, 6 Years of Benefits
Basically, this argument says that the Democrats are using dirty accounting -- taxing for 10 years and spending for only 6 and using that accounting trick to make the bill look financially sustainable.

(2) It Funds Abortion
This argument basically goes as follows: the Senate language allows the funding of abortions and the executive order that the President has agreed to issue cannot override the law

(3) Dirty Deals
The Cornhusker kickback, the Louisiana purchase, etc., etc.

Is It Water Under the Bridge?

The GOP are definitely all opposed to the bill, but I hear in the speeches so far, none of the anger that I've heard over the past few months. A trend that I noted earlier that has continued is a relatively high level of civility in this debate. Is this all going to be water under the bridge? Does the possibility of bi-partisanship on future issues still exist?

Hoyer's Speech Done, Boehner to Come

While the resolution that was just agreed to limits to debate to 60 minutes on each side, as a matter of practice and tradition, both the majority and minority leader are granted basically unlimited time to give extended remarks. Steny Hoyer just gave about a 20 minute, rousing speech on the floor of the House in support of the bill, which will almost certainly make the media highlight reel. John Boehner has yet to speak for the GOP, and I suspect he will talk closer to the close of the show.

Time remaining at this point (not including Boehner's extra time)
Dems: 57 Minutes
GOP: 58 Minutes

224-206 to Proceed to Debate

One more unrelated piece of legislation and we are on to debate on the bills!

228-202 On the Last Procedural Vote

The "previous question" has been ordered, by a comfortable margin. Now comes the 15 minute vote on the resolution governing the rules on debate.

Assuming this one passes as well, we will FINALLY be debating the actual bills themselves, first the reconciliation measure, then the underlying Senate bill.

Mulligans and Updates

I figured out why I undercounted the number of Republicans in my earlier counts by one. It is because I had been simultaneously over counting the number of Democrats by one, thanks to Rep. Parker Griffith's (now R-AL) defection. He was showing as a Democrat in opposition in my numbers, so it did not impact my total counts. Here is where (I believe) we stand as we move into the procedural votes...

GOP: 178 opposed, 0 in favor
DEM: 218 in favor, 35 opposed

Projected total vote: 218 in favor, 213 opposed

We might have a flip one way or the other of a vote or two, but I think this will be very close to the final margin.

And We Are Voting....On Resolutions for Guam!

5:42 PM
Debate on the rule is over....the House has 4 back-to-back-to-back-to-back votes scheduled now, with a couple of unrelated and uncontroversial votes interspersed among the two key votes -- first the "ordering of the previous question", agreeing to vote on the resolution governing debate and then the actual vote on the resolution.

Assuming the resolution is adopted, the House will then proceed to two hours of debate on the reconciliation bill, followed by a vote on the bill, then two more hours of debate on adopting the Senate bill, followed by a vote.

Being that it is almost 5:45 already and there is probably an hour worth of voting that is underway, the business of the House won't conclude until at least 11 PM and more likely something approaching midnight, given that the House is not very strict in controlling time and there will likely be some more consent requests and inquiries.

It's ok -- I'm in this until they are done...watching all the minutia so you don't have to.

This is a Lot of Talk About Abortion

5:14 PM
I'm frankly surprised. I expected today to hear about socialism, government takeover of private industry, federal deficits and the like from the right. And we have heard some of that to be sure. But a large portion of the opposition, much to my surprise, has been about the topic of abortion. Perhaps it is because the Stupak deal just got cut and the GOP is trying to shame the pro-life wing of the Democratic party about their vote. Or perhaps this really is as much a cultural question as it is an economic one. Very interesting to watch.

Betting Odds at 33:1

Intrade betting odds on passage of the bill have reached 33:1 in favor. This is up from the 4:1 range in which the bet had been trading for the past week or so. It seems President Obama will, after a long battle, succeed where prior Democratic Presidents had failed.

Latest Vote Commitments

The latest commitments:
GOP: 178 opposed, 0 in favor
Democrats: 213 in favor, 32 opposed, 9 undecided

Total: 213 in favor, 210 opposed, 9 undecided

15.5 minutes left in debate on the rules plus lots of unanimous consent requests.

This is Actually Kind of Tame and Civil

4:47 PM
Mid-way through the debate on the rules of debate (only in Congress, right?) and I have to say that the tone of debate so far has been fairly reasonable. Sure they have been some rhetorical flourishes about the bill killing liberty and freedom from the right and the GOP only being concerned about insurance profits from the left, but by and large this has actually looked a lot like civics the way it is supposed to be practiced. A pleasant surprise.

Stupak and the Gang In, Points of Order Done -- I Think

4:16 PM
Stupak and his gang of six are all on hand expressing support for the bill, now that it will be accompanied by an explicit executive order by President Obama reiterating prohibition of abortion funding. By my count, this swings 6 votes to the "yea" side, leaving:

GOP -- 178 opposed, 0 supporting (I had been shorting them by 1 member earlier, my apologies)
DEM -- 213 in favor, 28 opposed, 13 undecided

Totals: 213 in favor, 206 opposed

The DEMs still need a few of the undecideds to win the day, but it passage appears all but assured.

230-200 on Point of Order #2

4:07 PM
The DEM's survived the second GOP point of order by a vote of 230-200, again, without any GOP support, as expected.

Rep. Stupak is just starting his press conference, one would assume to announce the deal and his support for the bill.

Politico Reports a Deal Between Obama and Stupak

3:51 PM
Politico is reporting that a deal has been struck between Obama and Stupak and his gang of 6 Democrats. Reportedly, Rep. Stupak will speak at 4 PM announcing the deal. This would come close to sealing the deal if it is true.

A vote is underway on the second GOP point of order, relating to earmarks in the bill.

225-198 to Consider the Resolution

3:04 PM
An early win for the Dems as the point of order raised by Paul Ryan was waived by a 225-198 vote. Of course, agreeing to proceed is different from voting for a bill.

Another point of order coming. I have no idea how many of these points of order are coming, but this could drag out very late if the GOP has many of these.

Point of Order Will Be an Early Test Vote

2:39 PM
In about 3 minutes, the House will vote on Paul Ryan's point of order against the rule that will govern debate for the health care bill. This will be our first look at how the vote is breaking as one would expect supporters of the bill to oppose the point of order and opponents of the bill to support upholding the point of order. Expect a close vote.

Debate Underway, Point of Order on Unfunded Mandate Being Debated, Update on Vote Tally

2:18 PM
All the preliminary votes are done. The GOP is raising a point of order around unfunded mandates and the budgetary rules of the House, which appears to spark the need for another vote, which should happen in about 20 minutes.

The votes continue, with undecideds breaking in both directions:
GOP -- all 177 in opposition
Democrats -- 254 total, 205 for, 35 against, 14 undecided
Vote total: 212 opposed, 205 in favor, 14 undecided

The Stupak "gang of 6" is still counted in the opposed column, until I hear something formal differently, although rumors are flying that they may be on board.

Disturbance in the Gallery

1:57 PM
Anti-reform protesters making noise in the gallery being arrested and removed. Not particularly surprising as there is really no way to screen entrants to the gallery for this sort of thing.

Latest Status on Whipping the Votes

A few late-breaking DEMs breaking for the bill, but still no decisive count to put them over the top.

Republicans -- all 177 in opposition
Democrats -- 254 total -- 205 declared in support, 33 declared opposed, 16 undeclared
Total -- 210 declared opposed, 205 declared in support, 16 undecided

The declared opposed includes Bart Stupak, who may be a supporter if the deal on the executive order is reached. There are 5 other Democrats that this deal potentially impacts as well.

Grandstanding on Capital Hill

1:49 PM
The first unrelated vote -- on the naming of a Post Office was held open for 25 minutes...the GOP objected, or more precise, attempted to inquire as to why a 15 minute vote was held open 25 minutes. This seems like a legitimate question if you are not a regular congress watcher, but if you watch voting a lot, votes are routinely held open much longer than the stated time.

The implication from the GOP is that the DEMs are holding votes open for longer while they cut deals. This may or may not be the case, but 25 minutes is not at all unusual for a 15 minute vote.

Why Are C-SPAN Viewers So Dumb?

1:30 PM
C-SPAN tries to do a good thing, taking public phone calls during the votes to allow a voice to those who call in. So why is it that people that call in to C-SPAN are always so ill informed on both sides?

These calls are painful to listen to.

1-Minute Speeches End

1:21 PM -- each side has had 5 1-minute speeches (yes, it takes the House 18 minutes to do 10 minutes worth of speeches.) The GOP had sought to increase the number of allowed 1-minute speeches to 10 on each side, but the Democrats would not allow it. Clearly the GOP wants to g as slowly as possible and the DEMs as fast as possible.

Now, on to a few non-controversial, unrelated bills before the debate resumes.

Gavel In!

1:03 PM -- the House is gaveled in

First, the invocation, then some unrelated unfinished business...then the real debate begins.

Is Stupak on board? Do the DEMs really have 216? We are about to find out...

Will There Be an 11th Hour Stupak Deal? And Does It Matter?

After being on and off for days, it appears the pro-life wing of Democrats, represented publicly by Rep. Bart Stupak, are close to striking a deal with the White House, whereby they would vote for the Senate bill, which contains weaker language prohibiting abortion funding than the original House-passed plan, and in return the White House would issue an executive order clarifying that funds from the bill would not be used to fund abortions. How exactly this executive order would change anything is not clear to me.

The abortion issue and what the Senate language means has been a subject of a lot of debate, both in congress and in religious circles. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops came out against the Senate bill, after supporting the original House bill, on the basis of the abortion language not being strong enough. But, in a rare public contradiction, the largest group of US nuns, as well as several prominent Catholic Priests and Bishops dissented, stating the language was strong enough. The debate was striking in the directness with which the Catholic church has been engaged in the debate. The Catholic Church is both a strong advocate for health care as a universal right and a strong opponent of abortion, so their loyalties are naturally conflicted on this bill.

So does the potential Stupak compromise matter? Probably a little. It appears that the original Stupak "gang of 12" Democrats who demanded the abortion language in the House bill has probably diminished to 6 or so, with original members such as Rep. Marcy Kaptur on record as supporting the bill as written after originally being with Stupak. So, it is entirely possible for the bill to go through, albeit with no margin for error, without the votes of the remaining Stupak Democrats.

But getting Stupak gets Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer two things -- first, a margin of error if there is late movement that they don't anticipate. Second, it lets members in tough districts who are onboard if needed but would prefer not to have to vote "yea" off the hook.

Debate starts in 25 minutes. Stay tuned.

No Deem and Pass, Still Some Intrigue But the Dems Say They Have It

Rules Committee (Wisely) Abandons Slaughter Rule
The rules committee in the House yesterday wisely abandoned the widely panned "self-executing rule" which would have allowed the House to "deem" the Senate health care bill passed without directly voting for passage. From my view, this was sort of an irrelevant inside Washington debate, since everybody was going to know that those who voted for the self-executing rule were really voting for the underlying bill, but it was turning into a PR disaster for Democrats, and rightly so. If you want to vote for health care bill, vote for the health care bill.

So, here's what you will see today in the House:
The House will convene at 1 PM and begin with a period of debate on the rules for debate. There will then be three votes, with debate before each of them:
(1) A vote on the rules for debate
(2) A vote on the reconciliation fixes, which withdraw the "cornhusker kickback" and the "Louisiana purchase", scale back the tax on high cost health care plans and provide additional funding for lower income subsidies.
(3) A vote on the Senate health care bill, as passed in the Senate.

If vote #1 fails, votes #2 and #3 don't happen. If vote #2 fails, the House could still proceed to vote #3, although it would likely fail as well. If everything passes, the Senate bill goes to the President for signature and the reconciliation bill goes to the Senate for action. Under Senate rules, the President must sign the underlying bill before the Senate can vote on the reconciliation measure.

It's Very Close, But Dems Say the Have It
Democratic leaders, including people in the know like Hoyer and Clybern say that they will have the votes when the roll is called. But it is going to be very close. Here are the latest numbers:

* All Republicans are opposed to the bill, 177 in total
* There are 202 confirmed Democratic "yes" votes
* There are 31 confirmed Democratic "no" votes

This leaves the "on-the-record" vote at 208 opposed and 202 in favor, with 19 Democrats sitting on the fence. Since the Democrats need 14 of those 19 in order to get passage.

One has to think that if a Democrat has not declared yet that they are "gettable"...if they were truly not available as a "yes" vote, you would think that they would already be on record. What I suspect is happening is that there are a few out of those 19 that are hunting for a deal and a few that are available to Democrats if needed as the decisive vote but who would prefer to vote "no" for political reasons if there is any margin that will allow them to.

Debate gets underway at 1 PM. I'll be watching on CSPAN.

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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sunday is D-Day on Health Care

Sometime Sunday afternoon, it appears the House will vote on both the Senate-passed health care bill and a separate reconciliation measure to amend spending provisions of the bill, including eliminating all of the distasteful special deals for states like Nebrasaka and Florida that were included in the bill as well as deferring some of the taxes on high-benefit plans and attaching additional Medicare taxes to high income individuals. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that with the reconciliation measure, the final bill will cost $940 billion over 10 years and bring in $1.1 trillion in new revenue and savings during the same time, yielding a net deficit reduction of $130 billion. This report seems to have satisfied a number of the previously fence-sitting Democrats, who have largely been breaking for the bill in the past 48 hours.

It is still unclear whether the House will directly vote on the bill or whether they will use the "deem and pass" mechanism, by which they would vote on a rule to debate reconciliation that would simultaneously "deem the Senate bill passed". A lot has been made in the press and by the GOP of the cowardice of not voting directly on the bill and they have somewhat of a point. House DEMs should have the courage of their convictions to vote directly on the bill. But at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter. EVERYBODY is going to know that voting for the rule is the same thing as voting for the bill and trust me, vulnerable Democrats will get hammered for this vote.

So, here's what to expect next:

(1) The House vote -- sometime after 2 PM Sunday, the House will have its two roll call votes. The vote will be very close, but expect the DEMs to prevail by a razor-thin margin. The underlying rule or bill and the reconciliation bill should pass by almost exactly the same margin. The DEMs need 216 out of the 431 occupied House seats for passage. Expect them to get 216 to 220.

(2) The President signs -- the Senate rules prohibit them from voting on the reconciliation measure until the underlying legislation being modified has become law. Therefore, the President must sign the bill, complete with its cornhusker kickbacks and Louisiana purchases. That's right, the Senate bill must become the law of the land, at least for a little while.

(3) The Senate passess the House reconciliation package -- this will likely be after the Easter break, in early April. Little attention has been paid to whether the Democrats have 51 votes in the Senate (what is required for a reconciliation measure), but I'd be shocked if there will be an issue, as they control 59 seats and even giving up moderates like Nelson, Landrieu, Lincoln, Lieberman, Bayh and Webb leaves a little margin for error.

(4) The President signs the reconciliation measure -- the final measure becomes law. Health care reform, in its present form, becomes the law of the land. On to immigration, cap and trade and the economy.

I expect this to play out this way, but the sign that I am wrong will be if the Democrats hurriedly start pushing back the vote. That will mean they haven't found 216. I can't get to 216 yet among the publicly committed House members, but all the indications coming out of the vote counters in the House are that the leadership has enough privately committed votes to put then over the top. Intrade odds have crossed 4:1 in favor of passage. Watch the debate live on C-SPAN.

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Monday, March 15, 2010

All The Wrong Reasons To Be Mad About Health Care, Is The Obama Mojo Back?

Be Mad, But Not Because It's Socialism
The current version of health care reform, some variant of the Senate bill plus reconcilation fixes may well pass this weekend. The CBO cost estimate has not yet come back, which puts in serious jeopardy Speaker Nancy Pelosi's promise to allow 5 full days to examine the bill before voting, but I can't fathom her not holding a vote prior to the President's departure for Indonesia in a week if she thinks she has the votes. And word is out of capitol hill that Pelosi may well have some Democrats in her back pocket to put this thing over the finish line, Democrats who would prefer to vote no in a tough election year, but would vote yes if absolutely needed to hit 216. Blue Dogs and Stupak Democrats. In fact, the betting odds on Intrade have soared the past few days for passage of the bill, current standing at a price that puts the odds of passage at 75% versus about 30% at the start of the month. This thing isn't quite over yet, but it's probably going to happen.

Republicans are mad, really mad. Me too. Just for the opposite reasons. Let's discuss the GOP claims.

(1)This Is a Government Takeover of Healhcare / This Is Socialism
Socialism, for you students of economics, is an economic system where the government controls the means of production. For instance, we have largely socialized surface transportation in this country, as the government owns almost all of the roads, bridges and train tracks. We have partially socialized air transportation as the government owns the airports but not the equipment.

The United Kingdom has a socialist health care system. Every Doctor works for the British government and every hospital is owned by the government.

Canada does NOT have a socialist health care system. Hospitals are private and Doctors have private practices. Canada DOES have socialized HEALTH INSURANCE system, whereby the government administers health insurance for everyone.

What is proposed in the bill is neither of the above. Not a single soul presently in private insurance would move to a public plan. There would be more government money, but it would be for the purchase of private insurance.

And that is a shame. It is a shame that Democrats do not have the courage of their convictions to push for socialist health care or at least health insurance, at least for such fundamental things as catastrophic care and immunizations. A shame that they wouldn't stand firm for a public OPTION let alone a public trust, like every other first world economy has, at least in part.

Socialism? Pfft. They coudln't mangae liberalism. Contrast this with Great Britian where former CONSERVATIVE Prime Minister Tony Blair called the socialist health care system there "a national treasure." That's the right wing in the UK.

(2) This Bill Cuts Medicare / The Old Will Face Death Panels
Grandma will be before a death panel to treat her cancer. The old will be dying in the streets. You get the picture. Funny how government run health care is the best thing since sliced bread for those over 65 and an abomination for those under 65, but I digress.

The Sarah Palin death panel stuff is nonesense of course. And that is a shame.

Costs for end of life care are the juice in the runaway inflation numbers behind medical spending. We all will die, and most of us will have thousands of dollars expended on us at the end, often tens or hundreds, on treatment which may extend our lives only matters of hours or days or not at all.

The ONLY way to REALLY contain health care costs is to have a serious conversation about what cares makes sense and what doesn't. Is the brand new drug necessary or is the drug invented in 2000 whose patent expired and is one tenth the cost sufficient? Do I really need another surgery when my prognosis is terminal? These are uncomfortable questions, but they are the real questions that have to be answered if we are ever going to seriously confront the cost issue.

(3) This Is a Huge New Spending Program We Can't Afford
This is the most massive new government program of our lifetimes, they say. We just can't afford it.

This is a tiny bill. Less than a trillion over 10 years. Less than we've spent in Iraq to date. Less than the cost of the Bush perscription drug plan. Less than the Bush tax cuts.

A massive bill? Hardly.

And that is a shame. It's hard to reshape 16% of our economy with spending that amounts to less than 2% of our economy. Feels more like a tweak than a sweeping reform when you look at it that way, huh?

So do I support the bill? Yes, but marginally. It expands access to the uninsured which I hold to be a fundamental moral issue in a country as rich as ours (and recession not withstanding we are FILTHY rich as a nation -- we consider cell phones, internet access and cable TV to be essential expenses). It doesn't go nearly far enough. It does precious little to contain costs. Make no mistake -- we'll be back talking health care reform again in a few years. But it is better than what we have. And I applaud the President for not giving up on it, although I wish we were having a much different conversation.

Where's This Guy Been?
I wrote last week about the ever-so-slight signs that President Obama was turning a corner with his approval. Look at him go now. He's talking with a renewed fire about health care in the kind of unambiguous, moral, trancedent terms that I have been begging for the past year. He looks like he is more likely than not to get a win on his signature issue.

But the Obama Administration is firing on a number of other fronts. Senator Chris Dodd revealed the Democrats financial reform measure and there are even some indications of potential bi-partisan support. Arne Duncan is talking aggressively about educational reform, including aggressive performance management of teachers, pleasing former Education Secretary and all around GOP expert Bill Bennett to the point that he described Duncan as having "upset all the right people and that is a good sign." There is even talk of talking immigration reform and cap and trade. Okay, let's not get carried away about the last two. But something is definitely different in Washingon....the big O looks like he's back. Is this just campaign bluster or will it last? Who knows. But the game is a heck of a lot different today than it was the day after Scott Brown stunned the world. And that was less than two months ago. See how quickly things change in politics?

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Obama Approval: Turning Point, Bottoming Out or Still Declining?, Health Care Vote Next Weekend?

Has the President Turned a Corner, Jumped Off a Cliff or Opened a Parachute?
The President's latest approval numbers are intriguing, to say the least. In the past two weeks, his daily numbers have bounced around but in the last few days are sitting below both his averages for every month this year and for the month-to-date in March. However, his numbers from earlier in March were somewhat higher than any of his averages from the prior two months.

Looking at the monthly data, a little less than half way through the month of March, the President is on track to post his first monthly approval gain of his Presidency, with a monthly approve minus disapprove of +3.8% versus +2.3% in February.

These are small moves, to be sure. The President has essentially been in a range of 0% to +5% since the start of the new year, reflecting an electorate closely divided. So, with such small movements, it is extremely difficult to tell what is trend and what is polling noise.

I see three plausible scenarios here:
(1) The President has turned a corner
The noted tone changes in the President's approach: getting more aggressive on health care, attacking the insurance industry and becoming much more involved in getting legislation passed is resonating with the public. His bi-partisan health care summit revealed to voters that he is willing to work with the GOP, but that they are not playing ball.

Future prognosis under this scenario: His numbers continue to slowly rise, at least to the level of his 2008 election victory.

(2) The President has stabilized
The more conservative half of the country dislikes his left-of-center policies. The more liberal half of the country likes them. People have chosen sides.

Prognosis: A lot more time around the zero line

(3) This is just noise -- he'll be down by the time March ends
He had a few good days thanks to some poll-sampling noise and will be looking at a continued slide.

Prognosis: Another 1 to 2% loss in March, then negative territory in April.

Which one is true? Depends on how you read the poll numbers. I tend to believe the center scenario (#2), although what happens with health care reform and unemployment over the next two months could swing he scenario either way.

Health Care Showdown Next Weekend?
The President has delayed his trip to Indonesia, cancelled plans to take his family and Nancy Pelosi says the House vote could very well take place a week from today.

Let's break down all the dynamics:

First, let's look at the math. It is pretty clear that the bill will get zero votes from the House GOP. With current vacancies, the DEMs need 216 votes in the House for passage. They control 254 seats. So, the easiest way to count votes is to look at Democrats who might oppose the bill and see if it totals 39.

(1) The CBO Report
Leader Pelosi has promised members one week to review the legislation after the CBO report comes out. That would require the report to come out today for the vote to take place a week from today. If the report comes out Monday, will members let her get away with 5 days? I do know that would become GOP talking point #1 if she backtracks on that promise.

(2) The Stupak Democrats
This wing of pro-life Dems is dissatisfied with the Senate language. It is hard to know the exact number of Democrats who would vote against a bill because of the Senate abortion language, but my best estimate is that there are approximately 27 pro-life Democrats who voted for the bill the first time around.

(3) The Blue Dogs
There are many within this fiscally conservative group of Democrats who voted "no" the first time around. There are 37 who voted no the first time who are still Democrats and still in the House.

(4) Assorted Liberals
There are those mad at Senate language around immigration (illegal immigrants can't buy into the system), the lack of a public option, etc. Clearly MANY Democrats in the House would like to see a more liberal bill. How many would torpedo the present effort as worse than the status quo is unclear. Rep. Luis Guiterrez (D-IL) is the only Representative that I am aware of who has publicly declared his opposition based on the bill being too conservative, in his case because of the anti-illegal provisions.

In total, there are 21 Democrats who are on record as being committed "no" votes, although 6 have said their position is negotiable based on the final provisions in the reconciliation "fix". But, there are at least, based on this count, 44 others who may vote "no" and the Democrats need to hold on to at least 27 of them to win....and many of these fall into the Blue Dog bucket, meaning that the DEMs will likely have to persuade at least a few who voted "no" the first time around.

I'll try to keep up with the count and the vote schedule and keep you posted.

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Sunday, March 7, 2010

2010 Federal Round-Up, Assessing the Latest Employment Picture, Health Care Clock Ticking

2010 Round-Up
Let's take a look at the latest.

First, the Senate:
We have 10 races with fresh polls and of these, 3 move in rating category. The net of these changes are marginally favorable to the GOP, with 2 moving to the right and 1 moving left.

First, the moves:
Pennsylvania -- moves from Lean GOP Pick-Up to Toss-up - Arlen Specter leads Pat Toomey by 7 points in a new Quinnipiac Poll. Toomey had been leading by single digits in polls in recent weeks, so this could be a fluke or be overly generous, so I'm not ready to move this back into Specter's column until I see more data.

Colorado -- moves from Toss-Up to Lean GOP Pick-Up - both Buck and Norton lead incumbent Democrat Bennett in three new polls with spreads of 5 to 9%.

North Carolina -- moves from Lean GOP Hold to Likely GOP Hold incumbent Republican Burr is up by 16% in the latest Rasmussen Poll and has led every poll from every firm so far in 2010.

Now the other 7 races with fresh polling data that reconfirm existing race ratings:
Arkansas -- latest Rasmussen poll shows 3 potential GOP opponents leading incumbent Dem Lincoln by 2 to 9 points. The race remains a Lean GOP PIck-up.

Nevada -- the latest polls have the 2 potential GOPers leading Majority Leader Reid by 9 to 13 points. This one is close to moving back a notch right, but for now it remains a Lean GOP Pick-Up.

Indiana -- a bevy of polls have come out since Bayh's announced retirement and the spread has been anywhere from even to +10% GOP. We'll leave this a Lean GOP Pick-Up, although it clearly could move in either direction, depending on the candidates.

Connecticut -- Blumenthal is still up by a very comfortable spread of 26 to 29 points in the latest polls. This race remains a Safe Democratic Hold.

New York (Gillebrand) -- Gillebrand is up by 2 points against Pataki in a new poll. This race stays a Toss-Up.

Illinois -- A new Research 2000 Poll has Dem Giannoulis at +7%, an earlier Feb Rasmussen Poll had GOPer Kirk at +6%. This race stays a Toss-Up for now.

Ohio -- Republican Portman leads by small, but consistent spreads of 3 to 5 points in 3 different polls. This race stays a Lean GOP Hold.

Missouri -- Republican Blunt still +7% in latest Rasmussen poll. Remains a Lean GOP Hold.

So, this leaves us with:
Safe Democratic Holds (4)
Maryland, Connecticut, New York (Schumer), Vermont

Likely Democratic Holds (3)
Washington, Hawaii, Oregon

Lean Democratic Holds (2)
California, Wisconsin

Toss-Up - DEM Controlled (3)
Pennsylvania, New York (Gillebrand), Illinois

Lean GOP Pick-Up (5)
Arkansas, Nevada, Delaware, Indiana, Colorado

Lean GOP Hold (5)
New Hampshire, Kentucky, Ohio, Missouri, Arizona

Likely GOP Hold (5)
North Carolina, Georgia, Alaska, Kansas, Florida

Safe GOP Pick-Up (1)
North Dakota

Safe GOP Hold (8)
Louisiana, Iowa, South Dakota, Alabama, Idaho, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah

Net Projection: GOP +6 to 9 Seats (10 needed to control Senate)
Best Case GOP (all leaners) - GOP +11 Seats
Best Case DEM (all leaners) - DEM +4 Seats

Still in the same place we have been for all of 2010, with the GOP poised to make big inroads in the Senate, but shy of enough to win control.

In the House:
The generic polling has actually tightened somewhat, with the average of averages in our poll of polls showing the GOP at +0.7%.

This implies: GOP +31 Seats

So, again, the GOP stands to make substantial gains, but is shy of the number (39 to 40, depending on how you count it) needed to gain an outright majority.

The Latest Employment Report
For the month of February, the unemployment rate remained at 9.7%, retaining the gains that were made in January. The unemployment rate is off from its high of 10.1% but is still hovering at a level that is among the highest of the past 30 years.

Those "underemployed" -- working part time for economic reasons increased from 8.3 million to 8.8 million. The number of those "marginally attached", that is those that are not officially counted as unemployed because they have either given up and stopped looking or are not looking for other reasons, remained constant at 2.5 million.

So, in total, the "underemployment rate" increased form 16.7% to 17.1%.

Not good news in total, but some bright spots.

First, the official unemployment rate held on to gains for the month, which few (other than myself) predicted. Secondly, the entire increase is due to "underemployment", that is, people are working, just not getting as many hours as they would like...the discouraged number didn't increase nor did those that were outright unemployed.

So, in total, we still have a long slog to get back something that resembles more normal unemployment rates, but things continue to stabilize.

There has been a lot of speculating on the winter weather adversely impacting the report, and the BLS acknowledge that it surely did have a negative impact, but they are not able to precisely quantify the effect. If true, that SHOULD mean a more favorable report in March, all else being equal. We'll stay tuned.

Stimulus funds continue to slowly trickle out. Spending against President Obama's signature economic program so far is as follows:
Tax Cuts -- $92.8 billion out of $288 billion spent (32.2%)
Spending -- $194.9 billion out of $499 billion spent (39.1%)
Total Bill -- $287.7 billion out of $787 billion spent (36.6%)

Health Care Clock Ticking
There have been a lot of "deadlines" in the health care debate -- remember Labor Day 2009? How about the end of 2009? The latest theory in the political class is that if Congress doesn't act by Easter, the bill won't happen. While timelines can help to clarify the debate, they are all artificial. The only real deadline for reform this year is the adjournment of Congress. After that, bills that have already been passed expire, Representatives and Senators head to the campaign trail and, eventually a new congress comes in, one likely to be a lot less favorable to doing anything on the scale that President Obama is looking for.

Having said that, President Obama has been turning up the heat over the past week with a fire that many would've liked him to show a year ago. Nancy Pelosi is searching for a way to satisfy enough Blue Dogs and abortion opponents in her caucus to get to passage.

You'll know this is for real when a vote gets scheduled in the House. So far that has not happened. That means that Pelosi doesn't have the votes, not yet.

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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Final Showdown on Health Care Prepping?, The Second End of Harold Ford Junior

Reconciliation Push is Coming -- Are The Votes There?
President Obama today unveiled his "final" health care plan, basically a combination of the bill he had previously proposed (which was itself a sort of conference report on the House and Senate bills) and inserted a few GOP ideas (a $50 billion trial program to experiment with medical malpractice reform, deletion of the so-called "cornhusker kickback" which granted special immunity to increased Medicaid costs to the State of Nebraska) and has called for both houses to give the bill "an up or down vote". This is obviously a signal of a support for the reconciliation process.

So, let's review what has to happen. The steps don't necessarily, but probably will have to happen in this order:
(1) The House passes the Senate Health Care bill. The Senate 60-39 vote for passage made just before Christmas is still valid, in spite of the membership change since then. If the House passes the Senate bill unchanged, no conference report is required and the President can simply sign it into law.

But that isn't it. The House WON'T pass the Senate bill unamended, so to get the votes for #1, you also have to set in motion #2 and #3

(2) The House passes a set of budgetary changes to the bill.

(3) The Senate follows suit, using reconciliation, since the changes will pertain to budget line items. This avoids the need for a cloture vote in the Senate, since budget bills are guaranteed an up or down vote. The bill simply needs 50 votes plus Joe Biden as a tie-breaker to win approval.

So why can't they just do #2 and #3? Reconciliation is limited to budgetary items only. If you don't also do number one, you can't get in the provisions regulating insurance companies, requiring individuals to buy insurance, legally creating health care exchanges and so on.

The DEMs might try to do 2 and 3 first, but it is a very risky strategy, because if 1 fails to materialize, they will have enacted into law half a bill. They could pass the reconciliation measure through both houses first, then quickly pass the Senate bill in the House, allowing the President to sign both the same day to ensure that they are passed.

So, now that the strategy is clear, do they have the votes?

In the Senate, the Democrats are actually in good shape. Take the 59 votes that they control and eliminate all the moderates: Jim Webb, Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln, Mary Landrieu, Joe Lieberman. Still 54 votes. You could even let an Arlen Specter or an Evan Bayh slide and still be okay. The Senate won't be the problem, which is a strange juxtaposition, because when they were working towards 60 votes, the Senate was a mess.

The House is the challenge. The DEMs got 218 votes for their bill last time. Two of the members who voted for the bill are no longer in the House and Rep. Cao (R-CA), the lone GOP supporter, has said he won't vote for it this time. This leaves 215. Because of House vacancies, they need 217 for passage.

They might pick-up some votes from moderate Democrats who supported reform but opposed the public option. They also may lose some votes from scared Blue Dogs or from Pro-Life Democrats who are uncomfortable with the Senate's less restrictive abortion language. The vote counting is extremely hard and most of the questionable votes are not committing or commenting. The House Democratic leadership has a real job ahead of itself.

So will this all happen?

Believe it or not, I think the prospects for getting a bill to the President's desk in the next two months are greater than they have been at any time in his Presidency. Opening up to reconciliation changes the whole game. Democrats do not want to fail to do anything on an issue this big after almost 2 years of continuous work. And the House Democrats seem to be a lot better at getting their ducks in a row than in the Senate. But it certainly isn't a lock, especially in the Post-Scott Brown world. And rest assured, the GOP is going to be crying foul the whole way.

Politics is always fun.

Harold Ford Junior Flops
He carpet-bagged from Tennessee to New York to challenge a moderate Democratic Senator by running to her right. And now he is withdrawing because he fears a divisive primary? Who exactly thought any of this was going to work? And who is advising Harold Ford Junior?