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By Jay Cost

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Joe Lieberman, Olympia Snowe, and the Health Care Filibuster

Ezra Klein had an interesting read on the health care negotiations taking place in the Senate. Noting that Olympia Snowe is now one of the few participants in the high-level talks, Klein hypothesizes:

Democrats really want this bill to be bipartisan -- to the point that they're giving the Republican a space in the negotiations equivalent to the chairmen of the two relevant committees. Indeed, I wouldn't be shocked if this perk had been negotiated in advance of Snowe's vote yesterday.

This shifts the room's balance of power substantially: The negotiations were previously confined to one liberal Democrat and one centrist Democrat. Now they'll be between one liberal Democrat, one centrist Democrat, and one moderate Republican. In practice, this is likely to mean that Baucus will have something of a trump card against Dodd. If there's a particularly thorny dispute, and Snowe weighs in strongly alongside Baucus, it's hard to imagine Reid siding with Dodd, except in the most extraordinary of cases.

This is a distinct possibility. Given the importance attached to bipartisanship, can they exclude her even if they wanted to? How would it look if they told their sole Republican supporter to take a walk?

Of course, we cannot know for sure why Snowe is involved, given the secrecy of these closed door negotiations. I'd raise another possibility that I think is worth considering. It is not incompatible with Klein's suggestion - and I offer it speculatively because nobody outside the Senate knows anything for sure.

Let's assume that the Democrats have decided not to pursue reconciliation (at least not yet), and they are looking for a 60-vote coalition in the Senate. In that situation, you'd want the chamber's marginal legislator in the talks. He/she is the 60th vote, the one to break a Republican filibuster. By definition, if the marginal legislator supports the final product, the final product passes. At first blush, having Snowe in the room makes no sense. To get past a filibuster, all you need are the 60 Democrats. Wouldn't somebody like Ben Nelson or Blanche Lincoln be the marginal legislator? Snowe would presumably be the 61st legislator, thus making her vote nice for appearances but not crucial. Right?

Not necessarily. I'd note with interest this video snippet that has been making the rounds.

If Lieberman is a "no" on the Finance bill, then presumably he'd be a "no" for a more liberal bill produced by melding the Finance bill with the HELP bill. He's already on record as a "no" on the public option, and in this clip he sounds distinctly Republican in his talk of scaling back the size of the reforms.

But why would Lieberman be a "no" to the Finance, HELP, and House bills? After all, he is still a Democrat, even if he qualifies it with the adjective "Independent."

Lieberman will be 70 years old in 2012, the year he is up for reelection. Let's assume he wants another term. What might his electoral calculation be?

Well, you can bet your bottom dollar that the left is going to target him once again. They may or may not be able to field a viable candidate, but Lieberman would be smart to operate under the assumption that they will. Lieberman fended off a challenge from his left flank in 2006, defeating Ned Lamont in the general election by 10%. However, GOP nominee Alan Schlesinger won just 9% of the vote. In fact, 18% of all voters were self-identified Republicans who voted for Lieberman. 14% of all voters were self-identified conservatives who voted for Lieberman. Simply put, Lieberman won that 2006 race in large part because conservative Republicans voted for him, not Schlesinger.

This means that Lieberman now has to win over voters well to the right of his old electoral coalition from when he was a typical Democrat. Losing the support of the left means he must go looking for conservatives, whom he managed to find in sufficient numbers three years ago. So, suppose Lieberman antagonizes conservatives in his home state so much that they get behind a more viable candidate in 2012. That Republican wins 20% of the vote rather than 9%. If the Democratic nominee can replicate Lamont's 39%, Lieberman would lose.

This might explain Lieberman's unequivocal "no" on the Finance bill in the above clip. If he is worried that a vote with Obama on health care will damage him with his right flank, then he has an incentive to oppose the efforts.

The challenge for Lieberman, of course, is that he now has two flanks to keep happy. He has a right flank that could drift over to a Republican, and he still has a left flank that could drift over to somebody like Lamont or Richard Blumenthal. That's the challenge when you are the centrist candidate in a three-way race. Maybe Lieberman's calculation here is that, given the soft support among voters for the reform efforts, his best bet is to endorse reform generally but oppose these bills. Meanwhile, he votes with the Democrats on less divisive issues to lock down his remaining Democratic supporters. In that situation, maybe his Republican backers won't turn on him, and the moderate and Independent-leaning Democrats will not hold his "no" vote on health care against him. The progressives, of course, will continue to hate him - but they're no longer in his coalition.

I'm not saying that this strategy would work. By sitting between the two parties, Lieberman's reelection prospects are highly uncertain, to say the least. It's possible that, when push comes to shove, he just cannot win reelection from this centrist position, no matter how hard he tries. At a minimum, it is fair to say that Lieberman's switch from Democrat to "Independent" Democrat makes him more dependent on conservatives for reelection than he has been in previous cycles. If he is planning to run again in 2012, he has to figure out a way to keep them happy without alienating the moderate Democrats who stuck with him against Lamont. Maybe this is his solution to that tricky problem.

If so, then Olympia Snowe might be indeed the 60th, marginal legislator. That could explain why she is in the room with Harry Reid, Chris Dodd, and Max Baucus.

Like I said, this is speculative. I have used the words "if," "maybe," "perhaps," and "suppose" quite a bit in this post. I just offer this as one theory out of many plausible explanations that could account for what is happening behind the closed doors in the Senate

-Jay Cost