So what does all of this mean for health care reform and the recent debate over reconciliation? Democrats now have 60 votes (assuming that Al Franken is seated) to pass health care reform and some pundits may argue that reconciliation is no longer necessary. But this view overestimates the unity of the Democratic party. Blue-dog moderates like Sens. Evan Bayh (D-IN) and Ben Nelson (D-NE) are unlikely to support the price tag of comprehensive health care reform ($1.3 trillion over 10 years) or legislation that undermines the monopoly of private insurers. For this reason, reconciliation forces Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats to compromise with the liberal majority, not the other way around.
I'm glad that Democrats have preserve the threat of reconciliation as a way to pressure Republicans into a bill. "Nice role you have in the legislative process here. Shame if something should happen to it." But my guess is that it would be easier, now that Specter has flipped, to find 60 Democratic votes for some sort of health care compromise that runs through the normal order than 50 Democratic votes for a bill that's passed through reconciliation.
Right now, you hear more about votes than public opinion because there's no plan for the public to have an opinion on. Soon, that'll change, and a lot of the energy that's now going into changing the minds of legislators will go into changing the public's mind on the legislation. People forget this, but in 1994, Clinton's plan never came to a vote. It was too unpopular. My sense in this fight is that if the plan is popular enough to be a safe vote for 50 Democrats, then the numbers are such that it's likely to be a safe vote for 60 Democrats and a handful of Republicans, too. But if it's unpopular enough that you can't get any Republicans or full Democratic unity, you're not likely to survive the reconciliation process.