Bipartisan or not, time for a health bill

March 01, 2010|By Jules Witcover

After more than a year of Republicans in Congress saying "No" to President Barack Obama, are we seeing a crack in GOP solidarity against his plea for bipartisan cooperation?

The president in his health-care reform "summit" Thursday took note of a "glimpse" of bipartisanship in the Senate's passage of a $15 billion jobs creation bill the previous day by a 70-28 vote, with 13 Republicans supporting it. The ice had been broken first by the votes of five Republicans enabling the bill to come to a Senate vote.

In the same forum, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi cited a "blaze" of bipartisanship in a Wednesday House vote of 406-19, with most Republicans joining all Democrats to repeal the insurance companies' exemption from antitrust laws. Both votes may be no more than an aberration. But they also could be the harbinger of a breakthrough, if the Republicans in Congress are beginning to fear a public backlash from their pointed naysaying.

The five GOP senators who first joined the Democrats on jobs creation can generally be characterized as relative moderates in a party that has essentially become conservative-dominated. But several of the eight other Republicans who joined in voting for final passage are true-blue conservatives heretofore in lock-step opposition to the Obama agenda.

Meanwhile, the more significant test of such Republican cooperation will be the fallout of the bipartisan "summit" meeting on health care reform at Blair House, chaired by the president. Mr. Obama's willingness to give the Republican leaders that nationally televised forum to offer their alternatives could strengthen his hand, especially if the Republican proposals offered are widely seen as obstructionist or excessively ideological.

And if GOP senators deny Mr. Obama the few votes needed for the super-majority to override a health care filibuster, there are indications Democrats may now be ready to resort to the parliamentary escape hatch available to push the legislation through with a simple majority. Talk is increasing on Capitol Hill about using the so-called reconciliation route of bringing health care reform to a vote, circumventing the partisan roadblock and putting the Democratic legislation on Mr. Obama's desk after all. If so, Republicans crying foul will be confronted with the fact they have traveled the same detour themselves often in the past.

The first Republican to speak at length at the health care summit, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, cited Mr. Obama himself and other Democrats earlier regarding the downside of unharnessed majority rule. He called on Mr. Obama to abandon the reconciliation tactic but was rebuffed by Democrats arguing that voters want reform, not debates on political process.

In any event, the political risk to Mr. Obama of appearing to be an inept leader cannot be underestimated if he fails to achieve the primary legislative goal to which he devoted his first year in office. He needs to employ whatever means are available to him now to get it, and then to move on to other challenges with enhanced leadership credibility.

In response to the Republican chorus that the stimulus package has been a waste of money, and that the intended economic recovery has not happened, Mr. Obama has been busy citing various economic indicators of progress. The longer the president can offer statistical evidence from the Congressional Budget Office that recovery is creeping along, the longer he can justify calling for public patience. Most recently, the Commerce Department reported a 3 percent rise in durable goods orders in January, a job-creation development.

The passage of a jobs-creation bill, no matter how modest, will be his best counter to the 9.7 percent unemployment rate that stubbornly declines to drop. The Republican leaders in Congress, in repeatedly citing it as their yardstick of Mr. Obama's failure in turning the economy around, are betting on it remaining where it is, or climbing even higher. But if the jobless rate begins to fall before the November congressional elections, the president's steadfastness can pay off handsomely. That's the one statistic he needs most urgently now.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is juleswitcover

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