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Shields and Brooks Tackle Nervousness over Pending Health Reform Vote

March 19, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks sort through the top political stories of the past week, including the nervousness behind Democrats' cautious optimism before the potential weekend health care reform vote in the House.

JIM LEHRER: And how it all looks to Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

It’s going to happen, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s going to happen, Jim. I think there’s a good chance of it’s happening, but I — it’s far from locked down.

I mean, in spite of the projections and optimism on the part of Mr. Clyburn and the speaker, it’s a tough lift.

JIM LEHRER: Not locked down, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, they have to be publicly confident, because, if they are not, then it all collapses. But I guess the people I have talked to think it’s likely.

But I’m hearing the same thing Mark is hearing, that there’s a lot of nervousness.

JIM LEHRER: Where are the — what — who are the problem Democrats left right now? We know about the Stupaks and the anti-abortion folks. Who else?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, there were 39 Democrats who opposed it the first time around. And that was a — you know, a big list.

And four — they have lost four members from that group through death or attrition or resignation or whatever. So, you have people who have — Congressman Stupak and others, who — matter of conviction and what they believe. You have people who are terrified in their district. Many

JIM LEHRER: But are — are they mostly what you would call Blue Dog moderate Democrats. Or are there a few liberals here and there?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, they’re — well, you get some liberal criticism. Steve Lynch, who is a Democratic sort of blue-collar Democrat, who represents a mostly liberal district, largely liberal district, I guess, in Massachusetts, came out, had voted for it, came out against it, said it didn’t go far enough, wasn’t enough in the reform.

But, most of them, Jim, the thing they have in common is, they represent districts that John McCain carried. And, so, they’re tough. They’re tough politically.

JIM LEHRER: Do you go along with the conventional wisdom and what has been said that — David, that congressional careers really are seriously on the line on this one vote?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I mean, it’s — it’s quite unpopular. I think the latest Pew poll had 10 percent more disapproving than approving.

But, for the House members, they don’t think about the national numbers. They think about their own districts. And there are a lot of districts in Ohio, in North Carolina, South Carolina, in — in those McCain seats — and I think there are like 80 McCain seats. There are a lot of McCain seats.

And, in some of those districts, it is profoundly unpopular. So, I expect there will be a chunk. And I think most political analysts expect there will be a lot of people. Charlie Cook, sort of the dean of this, thinks the Republicans will take over the House. I think he’s a little out front on that.

JIM LEHRER: You mean in — come November? Right.

DAVID BROOKS: Come November.


DAVID BROOKS: But I think a lot of people will lose their seat because of this and all the other stuff.

MARK SHIELDS: There is a countervailing argument that is used. And that is, Jim, the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll done by Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff showed that, by 46-45, people said, yes, let’s pass it, even though there is the opposition that David speaks of. Let’s just pass it, because the status quo is increasingly unacceptable to people.

Two things. First, the insurance companies breathed life back into this. It was dying after Scott Brown’s election. But 39 percent rate increases gave this legs.

JIM LEHRER: You think so? You think it would have died after that?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it was in big trouble. It was on life-support. I don’t think there was any question about. And that gave it a revitalization: My goodness, this is what is going to happen.

But the second thing is, Democrats are really worried about this election, in this sense. When McInturff and Hart asked in the Wall Street Journal poll how interested are you in the campaign of 2010, 67 percent of Democrat — or Republicans self-identified as very interested…

JIM LEHRER: Very interested, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: … and only 46 percent of Democrats. And Democrats, by 4-1, back the Obama thing. So, Democrats have to do something to energize their base of their party to reengage them.

And I think they see this as — support of this as one way of sort of awakening Democrats who are kind of turned off.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think that’s a possibility, David, that — I mean, from the Democrats’ point of view, they have to now sell this as something that — that is good for the country, and they took a courageous stand, and they voted for it, and let’s move on.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, well, they will make that case.

I happen to have a perverse view. I think the loser — in the short term, the winner loses. If it passes, people will say, hey, they proposed this reform. My insurance rates are still going up. Costs are still going up. What happened? If the Republicans defeat it, they will say, hey, my insurance rates are still going up. Those guys defeated a reform effort, because I think one thing we can be sure of, certainly over the next several years, nothing much will happen for a lot of people.

There will be some changes, but, for most people, their premiums will still be going up. The costs will still be going up. And they will blame whoever they think is responsible.

JIM LEHRER: That’s just because of the nature of the legislation.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Right.


JIM LEHRER: … because somebody is going to intentionally do all this, right?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. No, exactly.

And, then, in the intermediate term, you will have this phenomenon, because you insure 30 million more people, you will have an increase in demand, no increase in supply and providers. That will be another little cost boost, as supply hits demand. And that is also going to create some political problems.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, what do you — how — what do you make of the — of the thesis that — that Democrats can argue, hey, this was history; we made history if they — assuming it passes, OK? For discussion purposes, it passes on Sunday in the House and eventually goes all the way, that Democrats can say, hey, look, it was time to reform the health care system, and we did it. And the Republicans — it was despite Republican opposition.

Do they have a — do they have — is that a salient point to somebody who is — right now who is trying to decide whether to go?

MARK SHIELDS: Sure, it is. And that’s one of the arguments that is used, along with, we will help you out in your campaign or with your own legislative agenda.

But, I mean, the president’s made the argument — he made it specifically to Dennis Kucinich — he has made it to others — look, if this goes down, whatever you are interested in, you know, education or anything else in the future, it isn’t going to happen, that this cripples, wounds this presidency so severely.

The selling job, the idea that this is really historic, that’s the president’s.

MARK SHIELDS: And that’s why, I mean, Democrats on the Hill were relieved. They were astonished that he was still talking about going to Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand. That is something he will have plenty of time to do. If this goes down, he will have time to be a world traveler, because he won’t have much of a domestic agenda to push.

And he’s got to sign the bill as soon as it passes, and then push the Senate.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, explain that.


JIM LEHRER: Yes, the — this is a…

JIM LEHRER: Yes, go ahead. I won’t…

MARK SHIELDS: This is the Senate — this is the Senate-passed bill. You can only use reconciliation on an enacted law, a law that has been passed. So, you have to pass this into law.

And so…

JIM LEHRER: So, the president has to sign it. It’s like any other — yes.

MARK SHIELDS: As soon as the House passes it, the president has to sign it. The changes that the House make then go to the Senate to be acted upon.

The Republican strategy in the Senate is to delay. And, if you delay with amendments, a couple of hundred amendments, it can take you into the Jewish holiday. And that is — that is a killer, I mean, because that ends the whole thing.

And, so, he has to be here. And as soon as it does — if it does pass, finally, to be able to make the case to the nation what this is about, why we should be proud of what we have done.

It proves, it would prove in a wonderful way that the system in Washington is, which is deadlocked and can’t do anything, has done something, has done something big and large, that presidents since Teddy Roosevelt have been talking about.

JIM LEHRER: All right, now let’s look at it from the other side, David. Let’s say, here again, for discussion purposes, it passes and eventually goes. What do the Republicans — what are the politics for the Republicans, who unanimously oppose this all the way? How do they handle this?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, they say, listen, we had a year-and-a-half debate on this. And, most people, especially independents, by almost a 2-1 margin, think it’s too expensive, it will be a fiscal catastrophe, it will not cut costs, and it centralizes too much power in government.

So, they just — and that is pretty much locked in. The polls have narrowed a little in the last couple weeks, but not tremendously. And so that is — that argument seems to be locked in. And so they will hit that argument again and again and again. They may run on repeal. I doubt they will actually get to repeal it, not wholesale.

But they may run on repealing it. And then they will just hit it again and again. They — they are absolutely convinced it is a complete winner issue for them.

JIM LEHRER: In other words, they would continue to argue that after they have already lost, right? I mean, in other words, after…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I mean, they will say, we’re happy to run on this issue, along with all the other things that centralize power in government, in Washington. The country is not exactly thrilled with Washington these days.


MARK SHIELDS: I will be happy to buy dinner for David and any listeners of his selection if he thinks the — anybody thinks the Republicans are going to run on repeal.

I mean, the first — the first image you are going to see if of a 6-year-old girl who had been denied coverage under the existing system because the new law, as soon as it is passed, preexisting condition for children is gone. And now she gets, she and her family can get insurance coverage for her illness. That is — that is a major change.

No Republican is going to say, we’re going to change that in the fall. And no one is going to run on it. And no one is going to talk about the process, that we have gone back and forth on this, and is it wrong or is it right? I mean, the Republicans on this remind me very much of Oscar Levant’s great line about Doris Day: “I knew her before she was a virgin.”

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, we took three hours and 40 minutes. We froze the clock in 2003 for three hours in the House of Representatives to switch five votes on the floor to pass prescription drug.

DAVID BROOKS: The process actually does matter. The Nebraska compromise and all these deals that were cut, that actually mattered to people. People not reading the bill matters to people.


DAVID BROOKS: I find the deem and pass, this idea that we’re not going vote on it, we’re just going to deem it passed and then vote on the amendments, I find that so repulsive, I’m — I’m out of my skin with anger about that.


DAVID BROOKS: To me, you take responsibility. You take responsibility. If you support something, you vote for it, and then you vote for the amendment. And then you take responsibility.

The idea that you are dodging responsibility, that Nancy Pelosi — I have a quote here. She said: “I like it,” deem and pass, “because people don’t have to vote on the Senate bill.”

That is a betrayal of everything we teach our children about democracy. And the fact that people are thinking about this means they’re so deep in the weeds about trying to get this passed, they have decided the ends justify any means.

JIM LEHRER: But that — that is on — that has been threatened, but what we are talking about here is the possibility that they do get 216 votes.


JIM LEHRER: Then that — that doesn’t swing, does it?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, they still — it depends how they want to do it, whether they just want to deem it passed. And then they would still have to get 216 votes for the amendments.


DAVID BROOKS: But it would — they think it would make it slightly politically easier if the American people are stupid enough to say, oh, I didn’t vote for the bill, I just voted for the amendments, for some members.

I find this a total insult to the democratic process.

JIM LEHRER: Total insult to the democratic process.

MARK SHIELDS: I’m not — I’m not recommending the process. I’m simply saying that the process, in the final analysis, it doesn’t — I mean, Jim, for three hours, they held the clock on the floor.

Tom DeLay went up to Nick Smith, the Republican congressman from Michigan, who was retiring, and his son was running for his seat, and promised, and — and threatened him, and promised money. He was reprimanded by the Ethics Committee for doing it.

I mean, they did — they changed votes, physically. Now, once prescription drugs for Medicare was passed, I mean, Democrats were talking about: We’re going to revisit this. This is terrible.

Did anybody do it? Did you see a Democratic candidate in 2004 or 2008 run on repeal of the prescription drug plan? Once it’s in law — I am not recommending deem and pass, which now has become “demon pass.” It sort of sounds diabolical in the public language. I’m not recommending that by any means.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think they would actually use it? Do you…

MARK SHIELDS: If you are going to vote, you are voting to pass the health care bill or you are voting against it. That is what the vote is going to be. That is how people are going to see it.

DAVID BROOKS: Vote for the damn bill. If you support it, vote for the bill.

MARK SHIELDS: They are voting for the bill.

DAVID BROOKS: Don’t dodge around it. It is just terrible. It’s just — and, by the way, when they do deem and pass, they have taken the Senate down another degrading road through reconciliation.

We have the Senate as separate from the House because simple majority doesn’t rule in the Senate. Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton were all against simple majoritarianism when the Republicans were in control. Now it will be just like the House, where you only need 51 votes. That gives tremendous power to the leaders. It totally undermines any thought that we should ever have cross-party negotiations.

JIM LEHRER: I’m now going to exercise the tremendous power I have to say, thank you, gentlemen. We will see what happens.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.