The Magazine

Obama's Fight to Win or Lose

Mitch McConnell takes a shrewd tack in the battle over Obamacare.

Nov 9, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 08 • By FRED BARNES
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The easy life is about to end for President Obama. For the first time, he can't defer or delegate or depend on the media to bail him out. He has to stand and fight for the policy that defines his presidency--liberal health care reform. And the fight won't be pleasant.

Obama is exactly where he didn't expect to be. His popularity has declined at a record rate. His supposed power of persuasion has turned out to be nonexistent. More Americans oppose his health care initiative than support it. And Republicans are prepared to combat him and Democrats on every major provision of it.

The large Democratic majorities in the Senate and House may look overwhelming, but they're not. At least a half-dozen Democratic senators are queasy about Obama-style reform. If two of them bolt, Republicans should be assured of the 41 votes that would block a motion to end debate on the legislation. If only a single renegade Democrat emerges, that will suffice so long as all 40 Republican senators, including Maine's Olympia Snowe, hang together.

There's less for Obama to worry about in the House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi can afford to lose about 40 Democrats and still pass Obamacare. Yet there is significant uneasiness in her ranks. When Democrats met last week, 47 said they're opposed to the bill, and four or five sneaked out of the room to avoid declaring themselves. Pelosi softened it ever-so-slightly, and Republicans figure she'll have the votes for passage.

The Senate is the battleground. Republicans are mounting a nonstop, full-court press against Obamacare. Minority leader Mitch McConnell has made an issue of the normally routine "motion to proceed" with discussion of the bill on the Senate floor.

It's at this point that Democrats with misgivings about Obamacare have what McConnell calls their "maximum leverage." Democrats who want non-trivial changes in the bill--Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas opposes the public option, Evan Bayh of Indiana the tax on medical devices--would have great difficulty getting them approved once the bill reaches the Senate floor. It will take 60 votes to remove anything from the bill Senate majority leader Harry Reid introduces at the start of deliberations.

Chances are, the motion to proceed will pass, though 41 votes are enough to defeat it. If it were to lose because of Democratic defections, the bill would have to be altered to accommodate the dissenters, upsetting the balance of taxes, Medicare cuts, and benefits. Liberals would be furious. Reid would be fit to be tied. Obamacare would be thrown off track.

Discombobulating Reid is part of the Republican strategy. Reid is mistake-prone, as he demonstrated recently in trying unsuccessfully to repeal cuts in doctors' fees under Medicare. He is anxious over his dicey reelection prospects next year in Nevada. He's erratic under pressure.

Given the Senate's rules, it's easy for Republicans to prolong the debate into next year. There are two likely benefits. The longer the debate, the more snarled up the Senate becomes in procedural matters and the more likely Reid is to blunder. Even more important is the time it will give Republicans to educate and arouse the public about Obamacare.

They already have a receptive audience. As pollsters Frank Luntz and Lowell Baker noted last week:

The untold story of the past six months is the collapse in support among independents and moderates. Republicans always hated the Obama approach, while Democrats were always in his corner. But to see Americans in the political center turn from cautiously supportive to increasingly opposed is the most significant political consequence of the debate.

Republicans need help from outside Washington to succeed, particularly in states whose senators are less than committed to Obamacare. Grassroots opposition can be pivotal. In 2007, it was largely responsible for derailing an immigration reform bill that might otherwise have been enacted.

Over the past summer, noisy protests at town hall meetings and tea parties had an enormous impact. But the intensity of that opposition has subsided just as counterpressure by liberal interest groups has risen. Republican leaders believe that fervor must be jacked up once more, reminding key Democratic senators of the risk of voting for Obamacare.

There's one tricky part for Republicans in the health care fight. They don't want the bill to be improved--that is, made a bit less sweeping and draconian. The bill can't be improved sufficiently to satisfy Republicans, but it might become more palatable to worried Democrats. Republicans can probably count on liberal Democrats to prevent this by rejecting moderate amendments (which would face the 60-vote hurdle).

The shrewdness of McConnell's emphasis on the vote to proceed will become clear when the final cloture vote--which would end debate on the bill--is taken. Democratic senators with qualms about Obamacare are likely to have voted for the motion to proceed, explaining they'll seek changes in the bill. In all likelihood, those changes won't be approved. Obamacare will have emerged from weeks of debate roughly the same. Will moderate Democrats then vote for cloture on the motion to end debate?

This is the key vote. Reid will likely need to hold all the Democrats. Here Obama's role is crucial. It may be up to him alone to keep Democrats from defecting. One or two votes could decide the outcome. If Obama fails, his health care initiative may die.

We know what the president will say in one-on-one meetings or phone calls. My presidency and our party's future are at stake. So is yours. If I lose, you lose too. If we don't pass health care reform now, we never will. We have to pass a bill. I promise I'll support the changes you want later--after the bill passes. Your constituents who oppose us now will come around. I'll help your reelection. And so on. If that doesn't work, Obama's aides can take the Chicago approach: Vote against us, and we'll make sure you regret it.

In a pinch, a president can usually get the one or two votes he needs on an important issue. The office of the presidency gives him the prestige and influence to do this. But influence can slip away. We'll find out soon if Obama's has.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.