By Robert Reich
This week the President is hosting a bipartisan gab-fest 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 the COBRA act, which gives Americans a bit of healthcare protection after they lose a job (“reconciliaton 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 R’s 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.
4. Reid fears he can’t even get 51 votes in the Senate now, after Scott Brown’s win. Reid counts noses better than I do, but if Senate Dems can’t come up with even 51 votes for the healthcare reforms they enacted weeks ago they give new definition to the term “spineless.” Besides, if this is the case, Obama ought to be banging Senate heads together. A president has huge bargaining leverage because he presides over an almost infinite list of future deals. Lyndon Johnson wasn’t afraid to use his power to the fullest to get Medicare enacted. If Obama can’t get 51 Senate votes out of 58 or 59 Dems and Independents, he definitely won’t be able to get 51 Senate votes after November. Inevitably, the Senate will lose some Democrats. Now’s his last opportunity.
5. House and Senate Dems are telling Obama they don’t want to take another vote on health care or even enact it before November’s midterms because they’re afraid it will jeopardize their chances of being reelected and may threaten their control over the House and Senate. I hear this repeatedly but if it’s true Republicans have done a far better job scaring Americans about healthcare reform than any pollster has been able to uncover. Most polls still show a majority of Americans still in favor of the basic tenets of reform — expanded coverage, regulations barring insurers from refusing coverage because of someone’s preexisting conditions and preventing insurers from kicking someone off the rolls because they get sick, requirements that employers provide coverage or pay into a common pool, and so on. And now that many private insurers are hiking up premiums, co-pays, and deductibles, the public is even readier to embrace reform.
So what’s been stopping Obama from using reconciliation? Even if some of the arguments held water before now, none does any longer.
My free advice to the President: If you want to get healthcare enacted you must use reconciliation and quickly. Host your bipartisan gab fest at the White House on Thursday. Tell Republicans you’ve been eagerly awaiting their ideas for over a year, but the American public can’t wait any longer. Explain to them how our current economic mess is directly related to the health care mess — we’re paying 16 percent of our GDP for health care while health insurers are hiking rates and Americans are losing their health insurance every day. Then tell the House and Senate to get to work on putting their bills together (or tell the House Dems to enact the Senate bill and then save their disagreements for reconciliation), and tell Harry Reid you want the Senate bill on a fast track of reconciliation.
Explain to the American people you understand their impatience. The Constitution does not require 60 votes in the Senate to pass legislation. A majority will do. That’s called democracy.
Robert Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton.