The clock is ticking

THE CLOCK IS TICKING…. I received a couple of notes yesterday from readers asking why the August “deadline” for health care bills is so important. What matters, is the quality of the bill, my correspondents argued. Whether it passes in August, November, or January seems irrelevant.

Alas, time really is of the essence. Robert Reich had a good item on this yesterday.

Universal health care is so complicated — touching on so much of the economy, stepping on the toes of so many vested interests — that to allow the bills to languish past recess risks the entire goal. Speed is essential. Recall that after Bill Clinton was elected, universal health insurance looked inevitable. A year later, it was doomed. As Lyndon Johnson warned his staff after the 1964 landslide, “every day while I’m in office, I’m gonna lose votes.”

Republicans don’t want any bill. Blue Dog Democrats are afraid of the costs of any bill. The AMA, private insurers, and pharmaceutical companies would be delighted if universal health care died. If bills aren’t passed in the House and Senate before August 7, the fights in both chambers over the public option and money will carry over into the fall, where they’ll become more intense and more prolonged. Obama won’t have a bill on his desk before the end of the end of the year. That’s a death sentence for health-care reform. The gravitational pull of the mid-term elections of 2010 will frighten off Blue Dogs and delight Republicans.

Now, the August 7 date is subject to a possible delay in the recess, and also note the fact that the chambers are scheduled to break on different days. Regardless, as Jonathan Cohn noted yesterday, the recess is made up of four long weeks “in which special interests can bang away at legislation, running ads and ginning up grassroots opposition. They’re going to do that anyway, of course, even if Congress meets the deadline. But it’ll be a lot harder to kill reform altogether if bills have already passed each house and all that awaits is Conference Committee negotiations.”

If reform waits until after the recess, it’s highly unlikely there will be time for Obama to actually have a bill on his desk by October, which has been the target all along.

So, what’s wrong with early in the new year? As Brian Beutler explained well yesterday, “[V]ulnerable members become less and less willing to vote for controversial legislation as election season kicks into high gear.”

It’s why Republicans seem anxious to slow down the process, and blow off the self-imposed, pre-recess deadline. It’s also why Democrats are scrambling, desperately hoping to meet it.

To clarify, I don’t want to overstate this too much. I’m not saying if the bills don’t pass in two weeks, reform is dead. I am saying, however, that the chances of this coming together are far greater if policymakers can head home in August with a conference committee to look forward to than the alternative.

Update: Damn, I forgot an important angle to this. Reader C.S. reminds me that there are also parliamentary reasons at play — the reconciliation option expires on Oct. 15, based on the final budget resolution. As C.S. reminds me, “For reconciliation to be a stick to avoid or an alternative to get around a filibuster, the health care fight needs to be resolved, or at a clear impasse, before the September appropriations deluge.”