Washington Matters


Why a Partisan Health Bill Is Inevitable


When the Congressional Budget Office came out with its verdict on the Finance Committee's health care bill, saying it would cut rather than raise the deficit, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell dismissed it as insignificant, saying the real bill will be "cobbled together in a secret conference room by a handful of Democratic senators and White House officials." McConnell is absolutely right. But whose fault is that? 

Democrats will be putting the bill together on their own for the simple reason that Republicans have refused to participate in the process, in any real sense of the word. Almost all GOP members of the House and Senate have stuck to the party line from the start, which seems to be that preventing passage of any bill is good politics, sure to hurt the Democrats in 2010 and President Obama in 2012. Karl Rove, President Bush's former strategist, used his weekly platform in the Wall Street Journal to reaffirm that point just last Thursday.

There are Republicans -- though none now in office -- who urged a different approach.  Former Senate Leader Bill Frist urged passage of health reform, and former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole chastised the party for digging in its heel, a suggestions that was soundly denounced by Republican stalwarts, including McConnell.

The Senate Finance Committee will vote Oct. 13 on the bill that McConnell dismisses, getting at most one Republican vote for passage. Yet the bill is in large part the product of three months of negotiations among three Democrats and three Republicans on the panel, including the senior Republican, Iowa's Charles Grassley.  Grassley blames Democrats for the "failure" of the effort, saying if they'd just allowed another couple of weeks, they might have resolved their differences. But Grassley's comments suggest otherwise. He complains that the bill won't cover enough of the uninsured and would cost too much, conveniently ignoring the balance that must be weighed between those goals. You can't insure everyone without pushing the cost higher.

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Grassley also objects to the taxes in the bill and the cuts in the long-term growth of Medicare spending. So Grassley wants to do more without raising the deficit but he objects to the revenue raisers and spending cuts that would offset more coverage. Talk about an impossible task. The fact is, rather than work toward a compromise, most Republicans have spent the last six months looking for reasons to oppose the bill, constantly moving the goal posts and insisting on more time to digest proposed changes.

It all makes Democrats look a little stupid for trying to win Republicans over in the first place. They have enough trouble keeping their own caucus -- which has a much wider divergence of views than does the GOP caucus -- without adding GOP ideas that won't win Republican votes.

It might be worth recalling the battle over the stimulus early this year. In the first days of his presidency and in an effort to win Republicans votes, Obama scaled back his original plan to $787 billion (from $1 trillion) and agreed to road and highway spending of only $27 billion, half the original amount. The spending element was even smaller because Obama also agreed to use over 40% of the package for tax cuts, mostly for individuals, although the Bush tax rebates had already proven that this kind of tax cut would do nothing to create jobs or stimulate the economy.  What did Obama get for his effort? A mere three Republican votes. And now he gets pummeled by Republicans because the scaled-back, poorly constructed package has failed to reverse unemployment.

Democrats, of course, were plenty obstructionist when George Bush was in office, including with his legislative agenda and several of his judicial and other nominees. But they didn't always say no as a matter of pure political strategy. A significant number of Democrats backed the Patriot Act and No Child Left Behind, for example, as well as two rounds of tax cuts that were passed (both of them through budget reconciliation procedures used to get around a Democratic filibuster). Several Democrats also authorized the Iraq war after comparatively very little time to debate or consider, essentially giving Bush lots of latitude in a war that will have cost $1 trillion by the time it's over.

As time goes by, some Republicans may find an Obama initiative they can support and do so with some trust in the administration. The health care debate, though, doesn't bode well. Perhaps the political strategists like it that way. Full opposition helps define differences for voters. It's hard to believe that most Republicans don't agree with Sen. Dole and would rather participate in real negotiations on a bill that will affect one-sixth of the economy. At least some have to believe that their constituents and loyal supporters back home want them to do more than turn their back on negotiations and then decry what is ultimately produced.




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