Thursday, November 12, 2009

Why Aren't the Democrats Smiling?

It was a monumental accomplishment - on Saturday, November 7th the U.S. House of Representatives became the first house of Congress to endorse a plan for universal health coverage in America. Nancy Pelosi and the House leadership cut deals, made promises, and were able to scrap together 219 Democrats and 1 Republican to gain a 220 to 215 vote margin of victory. So why aren't the Democrats smiling? Because one of the deals struck to ensure passage of the bill threatens to consume the Democratic Party in a civil war over the issue of abortion. To win the votes of conservative and pro-life Democrats Nancy Pelosi allowed a floor vote on an amendment that would bar the use of any public funds to subsidize private insurance plans that covered abortion. The amendment, offered by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), passed by a vote of 240 to 194 - of all the votes cast on the health care bill, it was the most bipartisan.

The Stupak amendments was crucial to passing the bill, but it has opened a deep wound in Democratic Party unity and may well derail final passage of health reform. Pro-choice Democrats are threatening to oppose any final bill that maintains the Stupak language and Senate moderates are demanding that the language remain. All of this points to growing threat to the Democrat's majority status.

Democrats regained the majority in the House and Senate by recruiting conservative candidates to run in moderate and conservative districts - the strategy worked, but the consequence is a more diverse party caucus. Democrats now face the real possibility of a push by the party's liberal base to purge moderate and conservative members. All at a time when election results in Virginia and New Jersey, coupled with recent polling data from Gallup, show that moderate and independent voters are flocking to the GOP. According to Gallup, Independents prefer Republicans on the generic congressional ballot by a 52 to 30 margin. In fact, Gallup says that the GOP has not polled this well since 1994 and 2002 - two mid-term election cycles that were very good for Republicans.

And it gets worse for Democrats. How has the public reacted to the historic vote on Saturday? By increasing their level of opposition to the health reform bill. According to Pollster.Com, public opposition to health reform legislation has risen. In fact, the most recent poll by Pew shows that the public opposes the reform by a 9 point margin.

The Senate will begin debate on health reform next week, expect a bitter battle over abortion, the public option, and immigration. And don't expect any quick or easy resolutions. So worried is the White House that they are now openly hinting at the possibility of passing the bill via reconciliation, a risky parliamentary trick that would certainly enflame public opinion.