There is, currently, a nightmare scenario afflicting Democrats on Capitol Hill with regards to health care reform. And it goes like this: Sometime early next week, leadership gets word from the Congressional Budget Office on their latest outline of reform. The legislative language on which they've settled -- the one with the clearest promise yet of getting the votes needed to cut off a Republican filibuster -- has actually scored quite poorly, saving less money over time and covering fewer people than earlier versions of the bill.
Should this occur, it could complicate the entire process. It certainly will prolong it. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) has said that, in exchange for stripping the public option from the bill, Democrats should have to find another way to save $25 billion in health care costs (savings that, the CBO said, a government-run plan would have produced). It seems likely he would up this demand if the latest scoring turns out poor.
Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), meanwhile, told the Huffington Post this week that if the supplemental approach for the public plan -- a provision that would expand Medicare to people as young as 55 -- were to prove more costly or ineffective than the public option itself, then senators would have to "go back to the drawing board" and figure out another approach.
And on Sunday, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) echoed her colleague, telling "Fox News Sunday" that should the latest version of health care reform prove insufficient in bending the cost curve, she and others would "have to go back to the drawing board."
"Absolutely," said McCaskill. "We'll go back and look at other proposals. ... We have to be saving more money for our government then we are spending."
Under normal legislative circumstances, the desire to tinker with legislation until it is right would be a relatively inconsequential and even welcome development. But health care reform is on a different political clock. And it is easy to see how the prospects for passage worsen if Senate Democrats begin to demand more time to consider even more options. All of which makes the upcoming CBO score that much more significant.