By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services
History repeated itself this week at Blair House, the nation’s official guest house for former presidents and foreign dignitaries, across the street from the White House at 1651 Pennsylvania Avenue.
It was here in 186l that President Abraham Lincoln offered command of the Union Army to General Robert E. Lee. He refused. It was here on Feb. 25, 2010 that President Barack Obama offered Republican leaders of Congress the opportunity to join Democrats in offering basic, quality health care protection to all Americans. They also refused. Two opportunities lost.
The fact that the bipartisan health care summit didn’t achieve any bipartisan results should have come as no surprise. Republicans made it clear even before the event, they did not come to play, they came to kill. Four days earlier, President Obama posted his health care proposal online and invited Republicans to do the same. They refused. In the meantime, as reported by Huffington Post’s Sam Stein, they attacked the summit as illegitimate for seven reasons: Democrats weren’t willing to start from scratch; Obama had already put together his own proposal; his proposal was not long enough; no governors were invited; nor any state legislators; the summit was funded by taxpayers; and the whole thing was designed to make Republicans look bad.
Together, those complaints added up to a “pre-existing condition” against constructive dialogue, which proved true, 10 minutes into the summit, when the first Republican speaker took the floor. Senator Lamar Alexander opened the discussion by denouncing Obama’s plan, asking him to jettison all the work done in the House and Senate on health care over the past year and start from scratch, and demanding that Obama and Democrats begin the summit by promising never, never to use reconciliation to pass health care reform legislation in the Senate. When Republicans start there, you know they’re not serious about reaching any agreement.
Nonetheless, even without a bipartisan compromise, the summit was still a worthwhile exercise. For two reasons. Because, on national television, it exposed Congressional Republicans for who they really are: a bunch of naysayers with no ideas of their own to offer. And because it gives Democrats, finally, the excuse they need to give up any idea of trying to make a deal with Republicans and pass health care reform the only way possible: with Democratic votes only.
Of course, mere mention of the word “reconciliation,” is enough to make Republicans apoplectic. They condemn it as anti-American when, in fact, it’s nothing but majority rule. You might even call it old-fashioned democracy. Indeed, amid all the confusion over reconciliation today, we almost forget: The rules of the Senate require only 51 votes to pass legislation. The filibuster, requiring 60 votes, is supposed to be a rare exception, not the rule. By invoking reconciliation to enact health care legislation, Democrats would be doing nothing other than following guidelines for the Senate laid down by the Founding Fathers. It is abuse of the filibuster, not use of reconciliation, which is un-American.
Republicans are particularly hard-pressed to condemn reconciliation, since they themselves have used it so many times on so many important issues. Among other GOP senators, Kit Bond, Judd Gregg, Orrin Hatch and Jon Kyl have been most vocal in demanding that Obama not employ reconciliation to get health care reform passed. Yet all four senators enthusiastically supported President Bush’s use of reconciliation to enact the 2001 Bush Tax Cuts, the 2003 Bush Tax Cuts, the Tax Increase Prevention and Reconciliation Act of 2005 and the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005. Senator Gregg even campaigned unsuccessfully to invoke reconciliation to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling.
As Majority Leader Harry Reid noted in his opening remarks at the summit, since 1981, reconciliation has been used 21 times in the Senate on budget-related issues, including health insurance. And mainly by Republicans. For example, the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985, enacted through reconciliation, established so-called COBRA rules, allowing workers who lose their jobs to carry forward their employer-sponsored health insurance at the same group rate for a limited period of time.
So, whatever the results, call the summit a success. Now the whole world knows: Democrats are serious about health care reform, Republicans are not. And now Democrats know what to do next: Forget about Republicans. Use reconciliation. And get the job done.
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