Our reporting yesterday, "The Democratic Collapse," counted one Kansas chicken before she hatched. The general thrust of the report -- that health care legislation cannot pass this year -- remains intact. The celebration of Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole -- for checking Majority Leader George Mitchell in their high stakes chess game on the crime bill -- was upturned yesterday afternoon when his fellow Kansas Republican, Nancy Kassebaum, changed her mind and defected to Mitchell. Her defection was all GOP Senators John Chafee of Rhode Island and John Danforth of Missouri needed to withdraw their commitments to Dole. Chafee and Danforth -- leaders of the "Mainstream Group" in the health care debate -- have been seething over the treatment they have been getting from their GOP colleagues on that separate issue. At one heated closed-door policy meeting, one senior senator practically called them traitors for not standing with them behind Dole. When Mitchell announced the Senate would adjourn after dealing with the crime bill, it was clear to them that their "Mainstream" effort was dead along with all comprehensive health care legislation, and it was no longer necessary for them to be nice to their GOP colleagues. They used Kassebaum's excuse for defection as their own.
Kassebaum had always been a wobbly piece on the chessboard, because of her hatred of guns and the role played in the crime bill by the "assault weapons" ban. With Dole needing 41 votes in order to checkmate Mitchell on a procedural vote, but short one vote without hers, he devised a strategy that involved exclusion of the ban on assault weapons from the concessions he would extract from Mitchell. With that, Kassebaum agreed, and Dole went off to see Mitchell with 41 votes in his pocket, clearly believing he had won. Mitchell would have to agree to strip out $5 billion in pork from the $30 billion in the bill to avoid the procedural vote that would force Democrats into embarrassing votes on a series of amendments. Mitchell said he would only agree to have the amendments voted upon en bloc in exchange for a promise not to call the point of order. In that mode, Dole knew he would lose, and thus rejected the counter-offer. Upon returning to his troops, though, he found Kassebaum insisting the counter-offer was good enough for her, and on those grounds withdrew her commitment, thereby snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Had Dole even suspected she would cave to the counter-offer, he surely would have accepted it, in order to force the Democrats to go on record for all that pork. But what's done is done.
A Clinton defeat would have sent the Democrats home crushed and dispirited, Republicans euphoric and unified. There would be no talk at all of passing health care legislation in the month that remained when Congress returned in two weeks. As it is, there are a few glowing embers that the Democrats hope can be fanned into a modest bill. On the other hand, had Mitchell accepted the Dole offer and clipped the $5 billion in pork out of the bill, Republican challengers to Democratic incumbents would not have that issue in the fall campaign. Crime and pork will still figure in most such contests, and we will find out in November which way the issues cut.
Democrats after all are not leaving the Capital feeling warm and fuzzy with their victory yesterday. They still face mid-term elections that could be devastating. Republicans need only six seats for effective control of the Senate. They believe they won't lose any of those they hold, with only Minnesota now in doubt, and will pick up three for sure, have toss-up chances in six others, and long-shot chances in four others, including Teddy Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts. In the House, today's best guessing is a 30-seat gain for the GOP, but there are dozens more that can be won. But as we were reminded again yesterday, counting chickens in the shell is risky business.