Two bills, better than one?

TWO BILLS, BETTER THAN ONE?…. When it comes to health care reform, a huge chunk of the bill is hardly controversial at all. Consumer protections — forbidding insurers from deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions, for example — are popular and would likely pass with large, probably even bipartisan, support. It’s the other part — financing, public option, subsidies, reimbursement rates — that’s contentious.

Apparently, Democrats are starting to see the value in separating the votes. The popular part would come to the floor, and probably overcome a filibuster. The second part would be done through reconciliation, and could pass with 51 votes.

The Wall Street Journal has a front-page piece today explaining that Senate Democratic leaders are considering just such a plan. “Privately,” the WSJ reported, “those involved in the talks now say there is a 60% chance the split-bill tactic will be used.”

Jonathan Cohn fleshed this out in more detail.

[The first bill] would include changes to Medicare and Medicaid, new taxes on individuals or employers, subsidies for people buying insurance, and (maybe) even a public plan. Because all of these affect federal outlays, positively or negatively, this bill could go through the reconciliation process, passing with just 50 votes.

The second bill would include the other elements — the insurance regulations, the requirement that everybody get coverage, and so on. These are the pieces of reform the parliamentarian likely wouldn’t allow to go through reconciliation. As a result, it would still need 60 votes. But that’s not so farfetched, since these happen to be the parts of reform on which there is the most wide-ranging consensus. Plenty of Republicans support these ideas, at least in principle.

All of this is theoretical, of course. Republicans might not support that second bill if it meant handing the Democrats a victory. At the very least, they’d fight Democrats on the details. Nor is it clear Democrats themselves have enough unity to get fifty votes for the controversial elements of reform. And all of that is assuming the parliamentarian lets those controversial elements go through reconciliation in the first place That’s hardly a sure thing; it will really come down to his interpretation of the rules. But even the theoretical possibility of Democrats passing reform on their own would change the dynamics in Congress, by giving Republicans new incentives to negotiate in good faith — and giving Democrats a way to enact legislation in case the GOP remains as obstructionist as it is now.

A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said yesterday that Reid is prepared to pass health care reform “by any legislative means necessary.”

I’m beginning to think he might mean it.