Saturday, January 30, 2010

Questions with the Prime Minister: American Style

America has imported much from British television - American Idol, The Office, Threes Company - and now may be the time to import a new British television staple. In the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister spends half an hour every Wednesday answering questions from Members of Parliament. These televised sessions force the chief executive and the rest of the legislature (as they are merged in a parliamentary system) to face one another on aregular basis. The exchanges may be respectful, though they are often raucous and contentious. These televised exchanges allow the public to see and judges their elected leaders. In the U.S. the separation of powers means that the President need not subject himself to the public questioning of the legislature and his continuation in office is dependent on the voters and not on majority support in the legislature. Instead, Americans are typically treated to the President dismissing the opposition party as obstructionist and devoid of any useful ideas and the opposition accuses the President of ignoring their suggestions. This past Friday, however, Americans were treated to a U.S. version of Questions with the Prime Minister when President Obama accepted an invitation to attend a retreat of the House Republican caucus in Baltimore. Those who watched the coverage saw a President in top form. Obama shed the confrontational tone of his State of the Union Address and engaged in a thoughtful back and forth with his GOP questioners. Likewise, Republicans dropped the harsh tones of their frequent criticisms and offered a plethora of policy proposals. They argued that if the President would only bypass the House Democratic leadership then bipartisanship could be attained. The meeting represented a win for both sides and for the American people.

Such meetings should occur monthly and they should be televised. The event in Baltimore allowed the President to demonstrate a commitment to his campaign pledge to change the tone in Washington and accept new ideas. For Republicans, it allowed them to disprove the accusations that they simply seek to obstruct and have no constructive policy options on issues such as health care and the budget deficit. In other words, the event made both sides look better, made both sides seem more responsive and responsible. For those reasons I fear that there will not be further events like this – it’s very difficult to turn your opponent or opponents into a simple caricature when you spend an hour or so every month in a face to face televised meeting openly discussing your differences.

Monday, January 25, 2010

If Indiana is in Play, so is the Senate - and now Wisconsin?

Update: Could it be that Wisconsin is also in play? If so, this could be a crazy year. A new poll shows that Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold (D) trails former Governor Tommy Thompson (R) in a potential match-up.

Birch Bayh was a Senator for the state of Indiana from 1963 until 1981, his son Evan was elected Attorney General of the state in 1986, governor in 1989 and has served as one of the state's Senators since 1998 - he received 64% of the vote in 1998 and 62% in 2004. Evan Bayh is as close to political royalty as one come in Indiana. Bayh is a Democrat. Although Indiana is a reliably Republican state in Presidential elections, Barack Obama scored a stunning victory there in 2008 - leading many to wonder if the political stars were realigning in Indiana. Apparently not, news comes today of a new poll showing Bayh trailing Indiana Representative Mike Pence in a hypothetical match-up. Bayh leads two other possible rivals, but polls below 50%. Make no mistake, if Evan Bayh is in jeopardy in Indiana then control of the US Senate is in play come November. Republicans could look to win AR, CA, CO, DE, IL, IN, NV, ND, PA – If the GOP held their seats and won those the Senate would be split 50 GOP, 48 Democrat, and 2 Independent. If those Independents continued to caucus with the Democrats VP Biden would be the tie breaking vote and Democrats would still have control, but if the GOP also picked up NY or Joe Lieberman switched to the GOP the Senate would be theirs… It would be difficult for the GOP to win back the Senate, but after MA and with IN in play it seems that anything is possible this year.

Charlie Cook had this to say about the current state of affairs: "The last six months, since we began writing about impending Democratic problems in August, has been like watching a car wreck in slow motion. We keep watching, anticipating that one of the drivers will swerve or hit the brakes, but they never do. The White House and Democratic Congressional leaders have done nothing to halt the impending collision. Things could change over the next nine months, but we have seen little to convince us that the trajectory of this election is changing at all."

Cook currently predicts that Democrats will lose 25 to 35 House seats and 5-7 Senate seats.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Scott Brown and Health Reform

I have argued several times on this page that there were significant obstacles to passing health reform, even after the House and Senate passed separate versions I noted that key differences over abortion funding, taxes of high end health plans, and the public option would be difficult to overcome. In recent weeks House and Senate negotiators along with the White House had been working to hammer out differences in hopes of having a final bill ready to the President by early February… that was so last week. The election of Republican Scott Brown to fill the Senate seat held by the late Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts has caused a political earthquake that has placed health reform’s fate on an uncertain path. The following series of headlines from Politico pretty much sums up the disarray in Washington right now:

• Reid, Pelosi work to save reform Jan 23 2010 - 12:05 AM EST
• Dem health care talks collapsing Jan 21 2010 - 8:20 PM EST
• Pelosi: 'I don't see the votes' Jan 21 2010 - 12:49 PM EST
• Dems weigh scaled-down reform Jan 20 2010 - 7:56 PM EST
• Dems in disarray on health care Jan 20 2010 - 2:02 PM EST

In the immediate aftermath of the election, some Democrats tried to spin the Massachusetts results as a being all about local issues – it was not. One month ago Scott Brown was 20 points behind Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley. He was the Republican sacrificial lamb in the race. Then he declared that he would be the 41st vote against health reform, that he would be the vote that would break the Democrat’s filibuster proof majority. As he traveled the state he would sign autographs “Scott Brown No. 41”. Exits polls taken in Massachusetts showed that opposition to health reform drove his victory.

That Democratic leaders find themselves unable to move forward at this point tells us much about how tenuous their hold on party members was to begin with. Democrats enjoy a majority in the Senate that has been rarely seen in the past century – yet they are stifled. Attempts to point fingers at obstructionist Republicans notwithstanding it is surely no sign of strength when the loss of a single vote jeopardizes your top domestic agenda item. Placing blame on Republicans in the Senate also fails to acknowledge that Democrats could pass health care right now, if only the House would accept the Senate version of the bill – but as Nancy Pelosi said “I don’t see the votes.” Blue Dogs in the House are afraid of voting for any bill, worrying that they might meet their own Scott Brown come November and House Progressive appear to prefer no bill at all rather than less comprehensive Senate bill (the real problem being that the Senate bill would tax high end insurance plans, many belonging to union members and Democrats have no intention of taxing a crucial source of campaign cash). If Democrats are not willing to compromise within their own caucus, can the be that critical of Republicans who are unwilling to compromise on two bills that reflect none of their proposals? Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid openly lamented the "wasted time" spent courting Liberal Republican Olympia Snowe (R-ME) - hardly a sensible thing to say shortly after losing your 60th vote.

Health reform teeters on the brink – the next week will tell the tale. Will the President and Democrats seek to double down and push for reform? Will they attempt to pass a scaled down version of the bill? Will they walk away and focus instead on jobs, jobs, jobs. Each approach is fraught with political risks – at the moment there appears to be no clear plan. That should worry people. William Galston is no less harsh when discussing the role of President Obama in all of this "If he continues to utter hopeful banalities devoid of concrete meaning, the fragile reform coalition will collapse within days, with consequences that will endure for decades."  Ezra Klein had a great assessment of the current state of affairs “Democrats have 59 votes in the Senate and almost 260 votes in the House. They brought their bill to the one-yard line before Scott Brown forced a fumble. Proving yourself unable to govern in that scenario is proving yourself unable to govern.”

Many voters may be asking that question come November 2010.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Ehrlich Should Look to Massachusetts for Inspiration

As former Governor Bob Ehrlich continues to play close to the vest with regard to his future plans he may want to look to Maryland's Bay Brother in Blue - Massachusetts - for inspiration. Massachusetts has not sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972, but a little known state senator by the name of Scott Brown has just won the seat once held by Ted Kennedy. If a Republican can win the Senate seat in Massachusetts then Ehrlich would certainly have a good shot at reclaiming his old job in Maryland. Massachusetts and Maryland share some interesting parallels – Democrats enjoy significant registration advantage in each state, roughly 3 to 1 in Massachusetts and 2 to I in Maryland. Unlike Maryland, most Bay State voters are registered Independents – about 50% I, 36% D, and 14% R. In Maryland, the breakdown is about 57% D, 27% R, and 16% I. So Maryland has more registered Democrats and more registered Republicans. But when Independent voters in Massachusetts are asked which party the lean toward the breakdown is about 50% D, 32% R, and 19%. “Leaner” data is not available for Maryland but according to 2008 exit polls, the Maryland electorate was 51% D, 28% R, and 21% I – suggesting closeness in party preference between the states.

In 2008, Barack Obama won Massachusetts by a 62% to 36% margin, he won Maryland 62% to 37%. In fact, presidential election results have tracked closely between the 2 states for a couple decades. Both states voted for Reagan by a similar margin in 1984. The two times when Massachusetts diverged most from Maryland were 1988 and 2004 when native sons were on the ballot. There are differences, the most striking being that Massachusetts lacks a significant block of minority voters. In 2008 the Massachusetts electorate was 79% white and only 9% African American. In Maryland the electorate was considerably more diverse – 64% white and 25% African American. African American voters overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama and traditionally vote overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates regardless of office. This does provide an advantage to O'Malley, but that advantage is somewhat offset by the fact that the white vote is less predictable in Maryland. In Massachusetts in 2008 59% of white voters voted Democrat, but in Maryland Obama received only 47% of the white vote. The latest Gonzales Poll shows that O'Malley holds a lead over Ehrlich, 48% to 39%, but O'Malley only wins 39% of white voters and 39% of Independents - this shows key danger areas for O'Malley.

In Massachusetts, an analysis done right after the election by Charles Franklin at found that Scott Brown won slightly more votes in Massachusetts than did John McCain in 2008. The Democrat, Martha Coakley, won only 56% of Barack Obama's total from 2008. In other words, Republicans and Independents turned out, but Democrats did not. Applying that turn-out model to Maryland I found that if Ehrlich won the McCain vote from 2008 and O'Malley received only 56% of the Obama vote Ehrlich would win the election 51% to 48%, essentially the same as his victory margin in 2002. Sound unrealistic? In 2008, Obama won 1,629,467 votes in Maryland compared to 942,279 for O'Malley in 2006 - 57.8% of President Obama's 2008 total. McCain won 959,862 votes in 2008 and Ehrlich 825,464 or 86% of McCain's total. If 2010 continues to be a year of depressed enthusiasm among Democratic voters Ehrlich could easily replicate Brown's path to victory here in Maryland. The shifting support among Independents and the enthusiasm among Republican voters should be a cause for concern among incumbent Democrats - O'Malley included.

It is also worth noting that Brown spent far less money than did Coakley. This suggests that O'Malley's impressive $5.7 million war chest may not be so impressive. Incumbent Governor John Corzine's $30 million investment in New Jersey proved to be no match for challenger Chris Christie's $8.8 million - come Election Day Corzine won only 44% of the vote, roughly equal to his 45% approval rating one month before the election. The latest Gonzales Poll shows that O'Malley's approval rating has been below 50% since October 2007 and is only at 46% now - this is the greatest danger sign.

Back to New England, the fact that the race in Massachusetts was a contest suggests that there may be few Democratic seats that can truly be labeled as “safe” come November 2010. Given Brown's win, Ehrlich should announce his candidacy for Governor now. There seems to be no more benefit in waiting.

Todd Eberly, Assisitant Professor of Political Science

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

O'Malley Holds Solid Lead Over Ehrlich in New Poll, but Has Cause for Concern

The latest state survey from Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies shows that Governor Martin O'Malley continues to lead former Governor Bob Ehrlich by a 48% to 39% margin in Maryland. That represents a 1 point drop for O'Malley and and 1 point increase for Ehrlich since the last poll in September. The 9 point lead should give O'Malley some cause for relief given recent election results in Virginia and New Jersey, but there are also danger signs for him in the poll. O'Malley enjoys the support of 73% of Democrats and only 39% of Independents - 11% of Democrats and 25% of Independents are undecided and incumbents tend not to do well among undecided voters. O'Malley should be concerned as well that his approval rating has taken another dip falling to 46%. O'Malley's approval rating has been below 50% since October of 2007 and incumbents rarely do better among voters come Election Day than thier approval rating at the time of the election. O'Malley only receives 39% of the white vote in the poll, he needs to get that number into the 40's to feel comfortable on Election Day.

Finally, although O'Malley leads Ehrlich it's important to remember that Ehrlich is not a declared candidate and has done no campaigning. Should Ehrlich launch a bid, those numbers could change quickly. The poll found that the economy is the top concern among Maryland voters and with O'Malley set to release his budget the economy is going to take center stage in the next few weeks. That provides an opportunity for O'Malley to attempt to assuage voter concerns but also an opening for Ehrlich to exploit those concerns. One potential area of trouble for O'Malley is that his proposed budget assumes that the state will receive $400 million in federal money for Medicaid. The problem is that the money was included in the House version of health reform and that bill is all but dead after the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts. It is likely that he'll need to make up much of that $400 million by the end of the session in April - will he do that via unpopular spending cuts or unpopular tax increases? While O'Malley will be busy making the tough budget calls, Ehrlich would enjoy the freedom that comes from being the challenger. In the end, the race may be O'Malley's to lose but with his approval rating below 50% and 13% of the electorate undecided victory is far from certain.

Click here for a related post on the implications for Maryland of the Massachusetts special election.

Todd Eberly, Assisitant Professor of Political Science

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

In Political Earthquake, Scott Brown Wins Clear Victory in Massachusetts

In a political earthquake, Republican Scott Brown has won (comfortably) the Massachusetts Senate seat previously held by Ted Kennedy. With that victory the Democrats have lost their filibuster proof majority. Expect dramatic political news to come over the next few weeks in the form of more House Democrats in marginal districts announcing retirement plans and previously thought safe Democrats like Senator Evan Bayh in Indiana suddenly seeming vulnerable going into 2010. With regard to Maryland, I expect Ehrlich to jump into the gubernatorial race very soon. In a year that Massachusetts sent a Republican to the Senate, it's quite reasonable to believe that Maryland might send one to the Annapolis. In an interview with ABC News today, Evan Bayh said "If you lose Massachusetts and that's not a wake-up call, there's no hope of waking up."

All Politics is Local, Except when it Ain't...

Update: This poll from NBC was released aftermy post, my certainly confirms my assessment of the political environment: "Perhaps most troubling for Mr. Obama and the Democrats is that independents are souring on them. That bloc backed Democrats in 2006 and 2008. Now, by a nearly 2 to 1 margin, independents said they would prefer Republicans to control Congress after November."

Original Post:
Former Democratic House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill once famously said that all politics is local - meaning that the problems and concerns of people in our towns and cities influence the decisions of elected officials and are the driving force behind elections - whether for Mayor or President. I have a great deal of respect for O'Neill, but I would argue that sometimes our politics is quite national - by that I mean that issues and concerns of national important influence how people vote at all levels. I believe that is what we are witnessing in Massachusetts as little known Republican State Senator Scott Brown stands on the verge of winning the U.S. Senate seat long held by the late (and great) Ted Kennedy. That a Republican is poised to win the seat once occupied by the Liberal Lion of the U.S. Senate in a state that has not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972 suggests that what is happening in Massachusetts is not simply "a local issue." Rather Massachusetts has become ground zero for ongoing public discontent with Washington politics, the state of the economy, and a year of unfulfilled promises by President Obama and the Democratic Congress. Promises of bipartisanship, openess, and end to special interest control of the agenda have all fallen by the wayside. Instead of openness major legislation like the Economic Recovery Act was negotiated in secret, the normal procedures for House and Senate Conference bypassed, Health Reform has followed a similar path and promises of bipartisanship melted away as quickly as the January snow following President Obama's inauguration, the President engaged in secret negotiations with the Pharmaceutical lobby and made considerable concession to win their support for health reform, more recently labor unions won concessions exempting union workers from paying the proposed tax on high end insurance plans (as proposed in the reform bill passed in the Senate).

In 2008, Barack Obama rode a wave of populist anger into the White House. Voters were angry about Wall Street bailouts, angry about a sluggish economy, about retirement plans that suddenly lost 40% of their value. During the course of the past year President Obama has come to symbolize, in the eyes of many voters, the very system that he ran against. It's no coincidence that Republican Bob McDonnell in Virginia and Scott Brown in Massachusetts have been able to tap into that populism and have run campaigns modeled after Obama’s 2008 effort. If one looks to the voters that were crucial to Obama’s victory in 2008 you can see no group more important than the growing number of Independent voters who broke overwhelmingly for Obama. That same group of voters broke 2 to 1 for McDonnell in Virginia, for Republican Chris Christie in New Jersey, and according to polls are favoring Scott Brown by the same margin in Massachusetts.

This shift among Independents should frighten Democrats going into 2010. According to the most recent polling, the partisan advantage briefly enjoyed by Democrats after the 2006 and 2008 election has gone. Democrats, Republicans and Independents now stand at near parity with each claiming about 1/3 of the electorate (with Independents actually claiming a plurality). Democrats cannot maintain their majority hold on the machinery of national government without breaking even among Independents. Be clear, Independents have not suddenly fallen in love with the Republican party – but at the moment it is the only other viable option, and they seem to be taking it. Democrats need to figure out how to reclaim the precious middle – they could start by living up to their own campaign promises from 2006 and 2008

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

In Maryland, Echoes of 1970 and 2002 as O'Malley Faces a Primary Challenge

I have argued recently that Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley is vulnerable to a challenge from former Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich. That vulnerability stems from national political trends that are boosting Republicans and state financial woes that are hurting Democrats. But news that O'Malley will face a primary challenge - a credible primary challenge - from George Owings III, a former legislator from Southern Maryland and former state secretary of veterans affairs only serves to boost Republican chances. Owings served in the Ehrlich administration and will run a right of center challenge to O'Malley. Given current national trends and Maryland's budget woes, such a strategy may be effective. An examination of recent gubernatorial elections in Maryland shows that Republicans perform best when the Democratic party is neither unified nor enthusiuastic about its candidate. Only time will tell if the Owings challenge weakens O'Malley. It is very likely that this challenge will influence Ehrlich's decision whether or not to run against O'Malley in 2010 - I suspect that it will encourage Ehrlich to seek a rematch with the man who defeated him in 2006.

Josh Kurtz makes a solid argument over at Center Maryland that the Owings' challenge is real and poses a true threat to O'Malley. Kurtz makes agood analogy to 2002 when a grocery store clerk named Robert Fustero took 20 percent of the vote in the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary against Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend - revealing Townsend's many weaknesses. Kurtz predicts that Owings will do better than Fustero and inflict serious harm to the O'Malley effort. I agree and will make a different comparison - to 1970 and the race for the Senate in Maryland.

It's hard to not see some parallels forming between the 2010 gubernatorial race and the 1970 senatorial race in Maryland. In 1970, incumbent Democrat Joseph Tydings was seeking re-election and facing a challenge from Republican J. Glenn Beall, Jr the son of the man he had defeated 6 years prior. As the incumbent, Tydings enjoyed the support of the Democratic Party, but he faced a primary challenge from George Mahoney, the Democratic nominee for Governor in 1966. Mahoney was a conservative Democrat – a Dixiecrat – and challenged the liberal Tydings from the right. As expected, Tydings won the primary, but lost the three counties in Southern Maryland and lost the Eastern Shore – then, as now, those regions represent strong pockets of conservative Democrats. Mahoney also did well in the working class areas of Anne Arundel and Baltimore Counties and ran surprisingly strong in Howard county. Tydings’ loss in Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore and his weakness in other areas revealed a weakness with important elements of the Democratic party in Maryland. In the general election Tydings lost to Beall. In the end, Tydings won the three key Democratic strongholds of Prince Georges and Montgomery counties, as well as Baltimore City but suffered losses is rural and working class regions of the state - losses that were foretold by his seemingly comfortable 53% to 38% victory over Mahoney in the primary. Beall defeated Tydings by a scant 50.7% to 48% in the general election – proving that winning Prince Georges, Montgomery, and Baltimore City can only take a candidate so far.

Coming back to 2010, Owings hails from Southern Maryland and spent 16 years in the legislature. He is a credible candidate who will likely draw his greatest support from the same areas of the state as Mahoney in 1970. The question for observers of a possible O’Malley/Ehrlich contest is not whether Owings defeats O’Malley (he won’t) it’s how well he runs outside of the Big Three areas and what that can tell us about divisions within the Democratic party’s rank and file. If Owing’s can crack 20% in the primary O’Malley’s days are likely numbered.

If Massachusetts is a Battleground State then Democrats are in Real Trouble in 2010

Without question the most interesting and unexpected political story of 2010 is the suddenly competitive race to fill Ted Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts.  Massachusetts has not elected a Republican senator in 40 years. As recently as one month ago the Democratic nominee, Martha Coakley, enjoyed a 30 point lead over Republican nominee Scott Brown - today two polls show the race to be a dead heat and the National Democratic Party is committing $1 million to the race. Given history and pure electoral advantage Democrats should be walking away with this race, the fact that it is a contest demonstrates just how bad the national electoral picture is for Democrats. It is highly doubtful that Brown will win this race, but if it is even close (within low single digits) then Democrats should panic about their prospects in 2010. If the party cannot rely on an easy victory in true blue Massachusetts then they should prepare to say goodbye to Democratic Senators in IL, NY, PA, NV, DE, AR, and CO - and they would be unlikely to pickup any Republican seats. That would mean the Democrats could see their 60 seat supermajority fall to 53 seats. If Brown actually manages to win in Massachusetts then I would throw the California Senate seat into play as well and could easily see a 51 seat majority for the Democrats - and most analyst agree that 2012 is a worse year for Democrats as they will have far more seats to defend. If Brown wins Massachusetts then I would argue that the Republicans would have a better than even chance of reclaiming the House - a Brown victory would be that seismic.  How worried are the Democrats about losing Massachusetts? So worried that they are actively seeking ways to deny seating Brown, should he win, for as long as possible so that they could pass health reform. So worried that they are rushing ads on to TV that misspell Massachusettes (sic).  So worried that Coakley is spending time in DC raising money from the pharmaceutical industry instead of campaigning. In some respects, the fact that Democrats have had to spend precious resources on this race already makes it a victory for the GOP. It's stunning just how far the Democratic prospects have fallen since January of 2009. Seems that much of the post election talk of an Obama realignment may have been a bit premature.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Link between Presidential Approval and Midterm Election Results

Public Opinion Strategies has begun a series a briefs exploring the link between presidential approval and party performance in midterm elections. The findings thus far pretty interesting. According to the first report: "If the President’s approval rating was 60% or higher, the President’s party picked up an average of 1 seat. If the approval rating was between 50 and 59%, the average loss was 12 seats. Finally, if the President’s approval rating was below 50%, the average loss was 41 seats (one seat more than the 40 seats GOPers need to win back control of the House)."

The most recent approval rating average from Real Clear Politics places President Obama in a real danger zone - 47.6% - and the overal trend is clear. Three of the most recent five polls have Obama at 46% or 45% and he scores no better than 51% in the other two.  The question for observers of the 2010 election is whether the President's approval rating can recover. Democrats need the president to get back above 50% or better, Republican prospects hinge on his approval rating staying where it is.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

It's Official: Owings to Challenge O'Malley in the Primary

As expected, George Owings III announced today that he will challenge Martin O'Malley for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Maryland. Before a crowd of supporters in the Southern Maryland town of Prince Frederick Owings declared that O'Malley's 2006 campaign slogan of "Leadership That Works" has been "a veiled and empty promise."  Time will tell how this impacts O'Malley, but given Owings likely appeal in the fast growing counties of Southern Maryland as well as Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore his campaign will distract O'Malley from focusing on his eventual GOP rival - that's a distraction that O'Malley does not need given his faltering approval ratings.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Political Center Takes a Hit as Dorgan Announces Retirement

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) has announced that he’s retiring at the end of his term - he will not seek re-election in 2010. This will make it nearly impossible for Democrats to maintain their 60 seat super-majority in the Senate and North Dakota now becomes a likely pick-up for the GOP. In a broader context, however, Dorgan's retirement will mean that there will be one less centrist in the Senate resulting in an even more polarized Senate.

Differences Remain between House and Senate on Health Reform

News broke yesterday that Democrats will bypass normal rules of process and not convene a House/Senate Conference to reconcile differences between the two chambers' health reform bills. Rather the House and Senate will play a game of legislative "ping-pong" as each body seeks to pass amendments until an agreement between the two is reached. This was views as being the only way to exclude Republicans from the process given the minority protections built into the Conference process. Interestingly, Democrats instituted many of those minority protections after reclaiming Congress in 2007 with the passage of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. By bypassing the Conference Democrats hope to speed up the process and have a bill for the president by early February. But many difficult negotiations await as an 11 page memo prepared by Democratic staffers shows - there remain over 50 substantive differences between the House and Senate that must be resolved. In the House, their version of reform passed with only 3 votes to spare and the Senate had not votes in reserve - the question now is how can Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi craft a compromise that will be acceptable to both chambers.