Is Nancy Pelosi Speaker of the Senate, Too?

Surely Democrats have not forgotten the debate over the stimulus, and the different experiences in the House and Senate. In the House, Democrats locked Republicans out and drafted a stimulus bill that got not a single vote from the other side – in fact, they lost some Democrats on the vote. In the Senate, Democrat leaders brought several Republicans into the room, bought off three with 30 pieces of silver, and passed a bill that they could call ‘bipartisan.’ And while it was still a terrible bill, at they could claim that the process was more in keeping with Obama’s promise of a new tone in Washington.

But now the word is that Democrats are getting ready to debate health care reform under the same sort of closed process that made the House look so bad in the porkulus debate. Worse: they’re setting it up to look like the House dictated the rules.

And who knows – maybe Nancy Pelosi is writing the rules. It sure looks that way from the outside:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi isn’t hedging on her budget strategy in any way: She thinks preventing Senate filibusters is the only way to get a decent health care overhaul package later this year.

The issue is whether to include “reconciliation” instructions for health care in the budget blueprint that’s moving through Congress right now. If they’re included, Republicans can’t filibuster whatever health care package moves through Congress later on, and the Senate can pass it with a simple majority. Right now, the House version has the reconciliation instructions, and the Senate version doesn’t…

At her press conference this morning, Pelosi said it’s the only way to get a final health care package that includes a public health plan option. Most Democrats believe that’s essential to trigger enough changes in the broader system to cover uninsured people, but Republicans see it as a step toward government-run health care.

“I believe that it’s absolutely essential that we come out of this year with a substantial health care reform — substantial health care reform legislation. I believe that that is best served by having reconciliation in the package,” Pelosi said.

As for Republican warnings that reconciliation would be a partisan move that would undermine cooperation on anything else, Pelosi’s view is, bring it on. “Some of these same people on the Republican side didn’t have a problem with it — and we have their quotes — when President Bush wanted to put forth his tax cuts to the wealthiest people in the America,” she said.

If Pelosi and the liberal get their way, it will force a more liberal, statist approach to health care reform. If the Senate sets its own rules for the debate, the health care bill will need 60 votes. And while that could mean Democrats would work to pick off one or two Republicans, that may be harder now that Arlen Specter is worried about his primary. Rather than settling for one or two Republican votes, Democrats might find themselves making more concessions to get 10 or 20 votes – and a genuinely bipartisan product. At least, that seems to be the desire from people like Ben Nelson and Kent Conrad, who represent red states.

But if Democrats only need 50 Senate votes (with Biden casting a tiebreaker), there will be tremendous pressure from liberals not to compromise. The one lesson the Left seems to have taken from the porkulus debate is that they sold out their principles for the sake of a bipartisan product, rather than enforcing party discipline and insisting on a much more expensive bill. You can bet that as the health care debate moves along, the activist core will invoke the memory of that spending bill as they try to push elected Democrats to the Left.

This ‘50%+1’ strategy will do more damage to Barack Obama’s already tarnished post-partisan image, and it will put swing-seat Democrats in a tougher position. They can expect more attacks from the Left, as the base applies even more pressure to get them to toe the Pelosi line. It’s also sure to provoke more grumbling from red-state Democrats, who see themselves and their re-election bids being hung out to dry.