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Rahm Thinks Reform Can Wait a While

Rahm Emanuel thinks health care reform can wait. In an interview with the New York Times, Emanuel suggested that Congress would deal first with jobs, then banking regulation, and then circle back around to health care reform. As Ezra Klein observes:

The timetable Emanuel is laying out makes little sense. The jobs bill will take some time. Financial regulation will take much longer. Let's be conservative and give all this four months. Is Emanuel really suggesting that he expects Congress to return to health-care reform in the summer before the election? Forgetting whether there's political will at that point, there's no personnel: Everyone is home campaigning.

Moreover, there's a time limit on health-care reform. The open reconciliation instructions the Senate could use to modify the bill expire when the next budget is (there's disagreement over the precise rule on this) considered or passed. That is to say, the open reconciliation instructions expire soon. Democrats could build new reconciliation instructions into the next budget, but that's going to be a heavy lift. The longer this takes, the less likely it is to happen. And Emanuel just said that the administration's preference is to let it take longer. If I were a doctor, I'd downgrade health care's prognosis considerably atop this evidence.

My colleague Jonathan Chait agrees, and offers this helpful analogy:

Let's call this the "My boyfriend is going to do a world tour with his rock band, then have a totally platonic weekend in Vegas with his ex-girlfriend, then join the Army, and then we'll get married" plan. Anybody see any potential problems here?

To be clear, there’s an argument for taking health care reform out of the spotlight for a little while. It’s not good for the cause, or the people promoting it, when the political world is hanging on Evan Bayh’s every twitch. Making progress on jobs is bound to help Obama and the Democrats, which will make passing reform easier.

And the process is going to need at least a little more time--time to work through the technical elements of writing a reconciliation bill and then time to debate the bill itself.

But a little while is just that: A little while. Unless I'm misreading the Times story--or the Times reporters misread Emanuel--this timetable sounds a good bit longer than that. 

Was this a trial balloon? It’s impossible to know. Emanuel's qualms about strategic over-reach on health care are among Washington's worst kept secrets. It's always possible he was freelancing. But it’s hard to imagine that, in a sit-down interview like this, Emanuel would toss out an idea like this without at least implicit approval from above.

Of course, the official White House line is that they're not easing up at all. Obama's public rhetoric backs that up and, privately, several officials say the same thing. The word from Capitol Hill is that leadership is making progress--a lot of progress--on crafting a new compromise between the two chambers. 

But getting nervous Democrats in both houses to sign off on that compromise will be tough. A muddled message from the White House, whatever its backstory or intent, only makes that harder.

By the way, the point of trial balloons is to see whether they get shot down. So it might behoove liberals who want health care reform to make clear that lengthy delay is not acceptable. For a few days earlier this week, members of Congress were reportedly getting calls from constituents, urging them to "pass the bill." More of those calls might be helpful.