This week the president is hosting a bipartisan gabfest at the White House to try to tease out some Republican votes for health care. It’s a total waste of time. If Obama thinks he’s going to get a single Republican vote at this stage of the game, he’s fooling himself (or the American people). Many months ago, you may recall, the White House and Dem leaders in the Senate threatened to pass health care with 51 votes – using a process called “reconciliation” that allows tax and spending bills to be enacted without filibuster – unless Republicans came on board. It’s time to pull the trigger.
Why haven’t the president and Senate Dems pulled the reconciliation trigger before now? I haven’t spoken directly with the president or with Harry Reid, but I’ve spent the last several weeks sounding out contacts on the Hill and in the White House to find an answer. Here are the theories. None of them justifies waiting any longer.
1. Reconciliation is too extreme a measure to use on a piece of legislation so important. I hear this a lot but it’s bunk. George W. Bush used reconciliation to enact his giant tax-cut bill in 2003 (he garnered only 50 votes for it in the Senate, forcing Vice President Cheney to cast the deciding vote). Six years before that, Bill Clinton rounded up 51 votes to enact the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the largest expansion of taxpayer-funded health-insurance coverage for children in the U.S. since Medicaid began in the 1960s. Through reconciliation, we also got Medicare Advantage. Also through reconciliation came COBRA, which gives Americans a bit of health-care protection after they lose a job (“reconciliation is the “R” in the COBRA acronym). These were all big, important pieces of legislation, and all were enacted by 51 votes in the Senate.
2. Use of reconciliation would infuriate Senate Republicans. It may. So what? They haven’t given Obama a single vote on any major issue since he first began wining and dining them at the White House. In fact, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and company have been doing everything in their power to undermine the president. They’re using the same playbook Republicans used in the first two years of the Clinton administration, hoping to discredit the president and score large victories in the midterm elections by burying his biggest legislative initiative. Indeed, Obama could credibly argue that Senate Republicans have altered the rules of the Senate by demanding 60 votes on almost every initiative – a far more extensive use of the filibuster than at any time in modern history – so it’s only right that he, the president, now resort to reconciliation.
3. Obama needs Republican votes on military policy so he doesn’t dare antagonize them on health care. I hear this from some quarters but I don’t buy it. While it’s true that Dems are skeptical of Obama’s escalation of the war in Afghanistan and that Republicans are his major backers, it seems doubtful that Republicans would withdraw their support if the president forced their hand on health care. Foreign policy is the one area where Republicans have offered a halfway consistent (and always bellicose) voice, and Dick Cheney et al. would excoriate them if they failed to back a strong military presence in the Middle East. This is truer now than ever.
Two more theories after the jump.