Voters are shouting at Democrats to head back toward the political center, but they keep plunging on left — to the point where I wouldn't put it past Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) to blow up the Senate in order to pass a health care reform bill.
Even though polls and the Nov. 3 election returns indicate increasing disapproval of Democratic management, House leaders plowed ahead with government-heavy health care reform, barely passing it.
The Democrats' logic, as stated by pollster Mark Mellman at a recent breakfast with reporters is, "We gotta get things done if we want to win in 2010."
That argument was reinforced by former President Bill Clinton in a meeting with Senate Democrats on Tuesday, where he attributed Democrats' loss of their congressional majority in 1994 to failure to pass his health care reform measure.
In the Senate, Reid says he's determined to pass a health care bill by the Christmas recess.
Details of the of bill that he's drafting are still secret, but he's announced it will include a government-run public-insurance option — a swerve to the left from the measure approved by the Senate Finance Committee, which contains a nonprofit cooperatives plan.
Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley, says his boss "is working tirelessly" to collect 60 votes for his health care reform bill in order to pass it under "regular order," but increasingly that looks next to impossible.
As a result, there's increasing speculation, notably among health lobbyists, that Reid will opt to bulldoze reform through under budget reconciliation rules — requiring only 51 votes — and risk all-out rebellion from Republicans.
Manley says reconciliation "is always an option, but it's not what we're looking at now."
And there are lots of reasons why Reid doesn't want to go that route apart from the fact that Republicans likely would shut down all other Senate business in protest.
For one thing, as former Senate Republican staffer Bill Hoagland told me in an interview, Reid's bill would have to be subjected to a "Byrd bath" to identify purely policy provisions that do not meet budget reconciliation standards.
Under the rule named for former Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Hoagland said, any line item in the bill that has no budget effects is subject to being stricken — such as authorization of prevention and wellness measures.
Hoagland said he's not certain whether insurance reforms such as guaranteed issue and elimination of annual caps on coverage — considered a vital part of health care reform — would pass Byrd muster.
A public insurance plan probably could be scored as saving money and would pass muster.
So, besides incurring GOP wrath, Reid's bill would risk being significantly narrowed if he tried to push it through on reconciliation.
Moreover, trying to pass a measure affecting every citizen and one-sixth of the U.S. economy on the basis of a bare majority would be attacked — and not just by Republicans — as blatant disregard for popular opinion.
Polls increasingly indicate that more voters oppose "Obamacare" than support it — by 10 points according to a Nov. 1 Ipsos/McClatchy poll and 8 points in a Nov. 3 CNN poll.
On the other hand, it's looking increasingly impossible for Reid to round up 60 votes to pass health care reform — especially by the end of the year. Resorting to reconciliation may be his only option.
To get 60 votes, Reid needs all 58 Democrats and both of the Senate's Independents to vote with him. He'd like one or two Republicans, too.
But a government-run health care plan — especially a "robust" one like that approved by the House and by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — surely will be opposed by all Republicans, plus Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and up to five Democrats.
Lieberman said he will filibuster any public option, and he's likely to be joined by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).
In addition, Reid has problems over abortion language — with Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) likely to insist on restrictive language supported by the Roman Catholic Church, while several female senators adamantly oppose it.
And Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) reportedly is balking because the bill may reduce Medicare reimbursement rates for California hospitals.
On top of all that, if Reid goes the "regular option" route, Republicans are promising "weeks and weeks" of debate on "hundreds" of amendments — practically guaranteeing that health care can't be passed this year.
If President Barack Obama, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Reid and other Senate leaders were looking at the Nov. 3 election results and most every poll, they'd pull back, limit the scope and cost of health care reform and abandon the public option.
They might even incorporate some Republican ideas to make their measure bipartisan.
Local conditions surely dominated in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races, but Republicans won largely because independent voters who supported Obama in 2008 supported the GOP in 2009.
And almost every poll indicates that Obama's approval ratings are plummeting — as is approval for most of his policies.
On Nov. 3, Gallup reported that Obama's overall approval rating had dropped from 67 percent in February to 51 percent recently and that his drop in the period from June to September "was the highest such drop in Gallup's history of tracking first-term presidents."
On Nov. 4, Gallup reported that, by 54 percent to 34 percent, voters view Obama's policies as "mostly liberal" rather than "mostly moderate," whereas more Americans now regard themselves as conservative (40 percent) than moderate (36 percent) or liberal (20 percent.)
In 2008, Obama won by carrying 52 percent of the independent vote. According to a Fox News poll, his support among independents in January was 64 percent. As of mid-October, it was 42 percent.
For sure, the public has no great regard for the Republican Party, especially congressional Republicans.
A late-October Wall Street Journal poll showed approval for the GOP at 25 percent, and a Washington Post/ABC poll showed confidence in congressional Republicans at 19 percent.
Yet, on Wednesday, Gallup reported that the GOP had a 4-point lead in the 2010 generic ballot — and that, by 22 points, independents said they would vote for GOP candidates for Congress rather than Democrats.
All this is surely a warning to Democrats to pull back and rethink. But to Democrats, it seems to mean charge left. If Reid is hearing that message, he may push the Senate over a cliff.
(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)