The frantic push for health-care reform has come to a screeching halt, as members of the House and Senate have rebuffed appeals from both President Obama and their leaders to swallow hard and quickly pass the legislation that has consumed Congress for a year.
The president and Hill leaders spent the weekend desperately trying to persuade members to disregard the Massachusetts Message and ram the Senate’s health-overhaul bill through the House, with a promise that the Senate would then use the 51-vote reconciliation process to fix it.
But that meant asking House Democrats to vote for a bill that contains the Cornhusker Kickback and the Louisiana Purchase, the tax on high-cost health plans without a labor-union exemption, and dozens of other provisions they hate.
The president reportedly told House Democrats in phone calls that since they had voted for reform legislation in November, they were already on board and were going to get hammered for their votes in campaign ads anyway. Their only hope, he argued, was to pass the final bill so that some of its early provisions would go into effect and he could spend the year telling the American people how wonderful the bill was. Rep. Marion Berry (D., Ark.) says the president assured him that it would be different from 1994 because “you’ve got me.”
Senate Democrats balked, too, with at least eight of them saying they are wary of using reconciliation to push ahead with health-care reform. Senate majority leader Harry Reid can only afford to lose nine votes and still go the reconciliation route, so one more defector would scuttle the plan.
John Podesta, head of the liberal Center for American Progress, says he doesn’t see any way that the House would pass the Senate bill and bet that the Senate would fix it later. “It seems me that asking the House to take a flier on what the Senate can do — we've kind of watched that move all along the past year, it hasn't worked out that good,” Podesta told reporters after a meeting with union officials. “So it's incumbent upon the Senate to really go first,” he said.
Don’t expect to hear Obama set any new deadlines for passage of health reform during his State of the Union address tonight. Instead, he will talk about the need to keep working on it because passing health reform is so important to American families.
Just not these bills. CNN has released a new national poll showing that only three in ten Americans say they want Congress to pass legislation similar to the health-care reform bills that have already been approved by the House and Senate.
Congressional Democrats are pleading with the White House to shift the focus to jobs and the economy and away from health reform and climate change, two issues that have fallen to the bottom of the public’s priority list for congressional action.
But the battles will continue. The Senate bill will sit out there all year. Political fortunes can change on a dime, as we have seen, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi will be ready to act swiftly and pass the Senate bill given any opportunity. If that happens, the monstrous health-overhaul bill could be on the president’s desk the next day, damn the will of the American people.
House Republicans meet in Baltimore this weekend to map strategies for the year, and developing a positive agenda for health reform will be at the top of their priority list.
Just because the current legislation is failing doesn’t mean that the American people want health reform to die. They want action, but they don’t want anybody’s 2,000-page bill. They want smaller steps they can understand that move in the right direction and don’t try to put Washington in charge of transforming one-sixth of our economy.
The best advice: Go slow with a step-by-step approach, and don’t try to do everything at once.
Published in National Review Online: Critical Condition, Jan. 27, 2010.