Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Foothills of the Health Care Summit

President Obama's health care reform bipartisan summit has just got underway. This is what I saw.

The President began with a call for putting good ideas on the table. His tone was a listening one, and disarming. But he paraded the usual sob stories about various people in trouble over health issues. This is the political theatre side. Such anecdotes are irrelevant to the issue. You do not undertake reform of this magnitude on the basis of a few touching stories, real though they are.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) led off for the Republicans. He is a reasonable and winsome fellow, and came across that way. There was one point where he quickly expressed his party's objections to the Democratic bills. It was jangling and difficult to follow. Otherwise, his two main points were, first, that attempting to solve what everyone agrees is a health care problem by a single 2700 page bill was doomed to failure. It would, as it has repeatedly in the past, fall under its own weight. American is too large and complicated a country for anyone to expect he can solve a problem involving 17% of the economy by a single bill. It will require a series of legislative measures, dealing with the problem one step at a time, building separate majorities for each one.

Second, he called the President to forswear any attempt to jam the legislation through the Congress by the 50% + 1 in both houses process called "reconciliation." That process, he said, has never been used for legislation of this scope and importance. He cited the opposition of Robert Byrd (D-WV), one of the ancient authors of the present Senate rules. He cited the important bipartisan support that President Johnson secured for his Civil Rights Acts of 1964. He also quoted then Senator Obama's objections to the contemplated Republican use of reconciliation when that party was trying to get judges confirmed over Democratic opposition, as well as Senate majority leader Harry Reid's claim that the use of reconciliation under those (comparatively less significant) circumstances would mean the destruction of the Senate.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Harry Reid shared the next allotment of speaking time, and they were elegantly predictable. Both gave us heart rending anecdotes. Speaker Pelosi basically said that on the basis of this and that story, there was no time to start from scratch. We must pass existing legislation now. Period. She signaled no openness whatsoever to discussion or compromise. Atta girl!

Senator Reid was his usual angry self. He led off by cautioning his colleague, Sen. Alexander, that while he was entitled to his own opinions, he was not entitled to offer "facts of his own making." In other words, he accused the first Republican speaker of being a liar. And then it wasn't clear at all what the purported lie was. That's why the Senate majority leader is so far down in the polls, not only nationally, but even in his own state going into the November elections.

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