After stalemate followed stalemate for roughly a year of lawmaking and politics, the fight to change national health care rules and insure millions more Americans finally seems days from concluding. And whatever the outcome, little else is likely to get accomplished in Washington until it’s done.
“Never did I realize that health care would affect financial regulation,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., blaming the health care debate for Sen. Chris Dodd’s decision to introduce banking and financial-market rules without Republican support after months of trying to get the other party on board.
Corker even suggested he felt sorry for Dodd, D-Conn., and the effort to prevent future financial crises.
“Look, the fact of the matter is I think he is a victim,” Corker said Thursday. “He is a victim of health care policy.”
Like Corker, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asserted the new Republican argument that Democrats’ plan to use budget reconciliation rules to get around potential Senate filibusters simply made all other work impossible. After presenting a bipartisan immigration-reform bill to President Barack Obama in a private meeting with Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Graham voiced enthusiasm for their ideas before dropping a legislative bomb:
“I expressed, in no uncertain terms, my belief that immigration reform could come to a halt for the year if health care reconciliation goes forward,” he said in a statement. “For more than a year, health care has sucked most of the energy out of the room.”
Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill have been just as adamant about passing a health care law by whatever means necessary, even if that requires a convoluted choreography of House and Senate votes and White House bill signings.
And amid the escalating rhetoric, Obama today decided to delay a long-planned trip across the Pacific as his biggest policy goal hangs in the balance.
Since the Senate Democrats no longer have a filibuster-proof majority, their House counterparts must vote on the Senate version of health care reform passed in December. But they will do so only in exchange for Senate Democrats’ promise to make changes in a separate bill that both houses of Congress would have to pass using the reconciliation process. That process, bypassing filibusters, is in place to allow passage of crucial budget measures, and includes parliamentary caveats that make it necessary for the president to sign the first bill before the Senate can even take up the changes sought by the House.
The need to get Democratic senators and representatives to trust each other and work together in so tight a legislative dance seems to be why Obama is changing his travel plans — which now includes leaving his family at home — though White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was dismissing the idea as recently as Thursday afternoon. Obama will now leave March 21 instead of March 18.
Gibbs said the president changed his plans after talking with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Obama will try to win over undecided members of Congress, especially House Democrats who are concerned about the Senate’s ability to follow through, Gibbs added.
“I think that’s why the President is spending time also dealing with senators to ensure that they are supportive of those legislative fixes on their side of it, too,” he said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who had called for Obama to stay home, suggested the White House didn’t have much of a choice.
“We have tried to work with the Republicans. This president has tried to work with the Republicans, clearly. And it pains me to even say this, but I’ve come to the conclusion that after a lot of just looking at what’s been happening that they don’t want us to get a health care bill through,” he said in an interview on MSNBC.
Pelosi, after meeting privately with rank-and-file Democrats, said she was “delighted” Obama was staying. But she noted the process still required a Congressional Budget Office analysis of any new Senate-House agreement on changes made by the second bill, and the timing remained iffy.
“I’m hoping that it will be in that time frame, but … our clock can’t start ticking until … we get the CBO score,” she said. “But that increases the prospect that people will be here, since he’ll be here three more days.”