The Senate's first day of debate on sweeping legislation to overhaul the health-care system produced a squeaker of a vote exactly the 60 that majority leader Harry Reid needed to overcome a threatened Republican filibuster that could have blocked him from even bringing the bill to the floor. But it also gave a clear picture of the Republican messaging strategy as the legislation moves forward into what promises to be weeks of tendentious debate after the Thanksgiving recess. The minority intends to launch a series of surgical strikes on key parts of the bill, and to raise questions about whether it all adds up to what the Democrats are claiming.
What they are counting on now, and what they are hoping to inflame, is public doubt. Over and over again on Saturday, Republicans mentioned a new Quinnipiac poll indicating that while a healthy majority of Americans 61% are eager to see major changes in the health system, only 1 in 5 believes President Obama when he says that he can do it without raising their taxes. What the GOP Senators failed to note was that the same poll showed 59% faulting the Republican Party for not working in good faith with the Democrats to produce a bill.
Judging from the rhetoric in the first day of debate, it would appear that one word is testing well in internal Republican focus groups: "arrogant," which is how they repeatedly described the Democratic approach. On Sunday, minority leader Mitch McConnell was at it again, telling CNN that he does not believe Democratic moderates will allow the bill to pass without significant changes: "I believe there are a number of Democratic Senators who do care what the American people think and are not interested in this sort of arrogant approach that everybody sort of shut up and sit down, get out of the way, we know what's best for you."
But the truth is, now that the bill is on the Senate floor, it will be very difficult for anyone to make any significant changes, unless they can muster 60 votes for them. Although there will be a number of skirmishes over abortion funding, illegal immigrants' access to the new insurance marketplace, a government-run public option and whether to help pay for the whole enterprise by raising taxes on the rich or taxing high-end, so-called Cadillac insurance plans, just to name a few everyone knows that the real test will be the moment, weeks from now, when Reid attempts to shut down debate and bring the measure to a final vote.
That will be the gut check, particularly for four wavering centrists who voted with Reid on Saturday: independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, and Democrats Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. All have said they have serious objections to the bill in its current form, and particularly to the government-run health care plan that would be among the options available to the uninsured. "We have a health care system that has real troubles, but we have an economic system that is in real crisis," Lieberman said Sunday on NBC. "I don't want to fix the problems in our health care system in a way that creates more of an economic crisis."
But having come this far, can Washington really afford to just walk away from the health care problem, leaving tens of millions uninsured and health costs spiraling upward? That's really the question that the Senate must now face. As Republican turned Democrat Arlen Specter put it on Fox News: "The one option which is not present in my judgment is the option of doing nothing."