Discovering the difference between procedure and policy

DISCOVERING THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PROCEDURE AND POLICY…. Yesterday afternoon, Sen. Evan Bayh’s (D-Ind.) office released a statement about where the senator stands on the status of the health care reform bill. It read:

Senator Bayh will support moving forward to a health care debate on the Senate floor, where he will work hard to address his concerns and craft affordable legislation that reduces the deficit and lowers health care costs for Indiana families and small businesses.

That is, to be sure, good news. There are several key procedural votes, and the measure Bayh’s office is referring to here — the motion to proceed — is the first one. By voting with the majority on this, Bayh is allowing the reform bill to go to the floor, where it can be debated, subjected to amendments, etc.

But there are some concerns to be considered. First, I’m reluctant to give Bayh too much credit here. Voting for the motion to proceed is the bare minimum expected of a Senate Democrat at this stage. Republicans opposing against this motion are effectively arguing, “We oppose reform so strongly, we don’t even want the Senate to talk about it.” Bayh announced he’s not willing to go that far. I’m glad, but I don’t want to reward the Hoosier with the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Second, and more important, by supporting the motion to proceed despite misgivings about the overall legislation, Bayh is making an important distinction between procedural votes and policy votes — which is exactly what he said a few days ago he would not do.

Reform advocates have pleaded with center-right Democrats, asking them to reject a Republican filibuster when the legislation is ready for a vote. Senators like Bayh can obviously oppose the bill, but the key is the procedural vote — support cloture and let the Senate vote up or down on the bill.

On Wednesday, Bayh said he could make no such commitment because he doesn’t see “much difference between process and policy.” As the argument goes, if he disapproves of the policy, he disapproves of the procedural motion that would possibly let the policy pass.

Except, Bayh’s votes aren’t matching up with Bayh’s rhetoric. He’s voted for cloture several times on bills he opposed. Indeed, just yesterday he voted with Dems to waive a point of order on a resolution included in a conference report, only to vote soon after with Republicans against the conference report.

The same is true with motion to proceed on reform — he has reservations about the policy, but he’s backing the procedure to let the bill move forward.

If Bayh and other center-right Dems can take this same approach when health care reform is ready for a vote, we’ll all be just fine.