Sen. Edward Kennedy’s death adds another dimension to the on-going health care debate. If Democrats decide to go it alone to pass the hardest parts of health care reform, it will be because of many Republicans’ “just say no” strategy. This threatens the bipartisanship that everyone would prefer.
House and Senate Democratic leaders are considering breaking the legislation into two parts. This would bypass the current requirement of 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. Instead, they would try to pass the most expensive provisions with just 51 votes through a parliamentary device called reconciliation. The problem is that the dwindling number of moderate Republicans — Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and a few others — makes it hard to muster the 60 votes.
The razor-thin passage of the stimulus bill earlier this year cast an ominous shadow of what’s to come. It passed the House easily, despite the opposition of all 177 Republicans. GOP leaders nonetheless hailed their vote as a sign of party unity. In the Senate, the bill got the necessary 60 votes, but only with the help of three Republicans, Snowe, Collins and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who has since become a Democrat.
Health care legislation seems to be encountering the same obstacle: almost automatic nos. For example, when the Obama administration suggested that it might abandon its plan for a public option insurance to compete with private insurance plans in favor of health care cooperatives, Sen Jon Kyk, R-Ariz., dismissed the co-op proposal as a “Trojan horse and a government-run plan by another name.”
The New York Times on Aug. 19 quoted an unnamed senior administration official as saying “the sense within the White House was that the Republicans, in an effort to undermine President Obama and congressional Democrats, had made a political calculation to oppose any health care legislation.”
Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger described Mr. Obama’s election-victory margin as “a slim base built on hopes and dreams” and predicted that it could drift away. But he concluded: “If they get a big win on the health care bill, none of this matters.” He added: “From the looks of the last two weeks, they’re not winning.”
Jeanne Cummings, a reporter for Politico, wrote that the Republicans were “hatching a political comeback by dusting off a strategic playbook written nearly two decades ago,” referring to Newt Gingrich’s 1994 takeover of Congress. “Its themes: Unite against Democrats’ economic policy, block and counter health care reform and tar them with spending scandals.”
That is what’s going on today. The needed reform of our exorbitant and inefficient health care system shouldn’t be hostage to politics or efforts to create failures for the Obama administration. To avert that outcome, Democrats may have no choice than to go it alone.