Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Democrats are right to lock Republicans out of health reform conference committee

Normally, I'd be in favor of following protocol involving conference committees. President Obama was elected on a promise to make Washington a more civil place, and it is absolutely certain that Democrats will therefore receive some flak for bypassing the conference committee and excluding Republicans from the final negotiation on health care.

WASHINGTON – House and Senate Democrats intend to bypass traditional procedures when they negotiate a final compromise on health care legislation, officials said Monday, a move that will exclude Republican lawmakers and reduce their ability to delay or force politically troubling votes in both houses....

Democratic aides said the final compromise talks would essentially be a three-way negotiation involving top Democrats in the House and Senate and the White House, a structure that gives unusual latitude to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.

These officials said there are no plans to appoint a formal House-Senate conference committee, the method Congress most often uses to reconcile differing bills. Under that customary format, a committee chairman is appointed to preside, and other senior lawmakers from both parties and houses participate in typically perfunctory public meetings while the meaningful negotiations occur behind closed doors.

In this case though the White House, Reid and Pelosi are absolutely right. If there was a chance of reaching a consensus that Republicans could support then they should work with Republicans. But since it is now abundantly clear that the GOP is fixated on a single goal-- to defeat the bill-- there is no point in watering it down even further than it already has been in exchange for exactly nothing, because that's how much support any compromise with Republicans would get from the right side of the aisle.

Consider last year's stimulus bill early in the Obama administration when we were literally teetering on the brink of a total financial collapse and a second Great Depression. President Obama broke precedent by traveling to Capitol Hill to meet with Congress, including several meetings with Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate. Democrats made numerous changes in the bill to accomodate Republicans. We ended up with a watered-down stimulus (one reason economists are now saying we should pass another one this year) that was 43% tax cuts (including several breaks that Republicans specifically asked be included) and money that was supposed to be spent on needed school construction and renovation (and which would certainly have created jobs and boosted the local economy everywhere) was axed to keep Republicans happy. The price for the vote of Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) was to get rid of funding for pandemic preparedness.

So after reaching out to Republicans and making all of these concessions, how many Republicans actually voted for the bill? Zero in the House and three in the Senate.

When the health care reform bill was in committee, the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee entertained and ultimately accepted over 200 amendments proposed by Republicans. But even with the amendments in the bill, every single Republican voted against it. Then Senator Max Baucus spent the summer meeting with three Republican Senators to try and craft a bipartisan bill. He at least did get one Republican on his committee to vote for the final committee bill-- Maine's Olympia Snowe. But in the process all of the compromises that were written into his committee's bill-- most notably the lack of a public option-- were supported by Republicans but in the end they voted against the finished product.

So then during the floor debate in the House and especially in the Senate we saw Republicans do everything they could, not to reach an accord on the bill, but simply to delay the bill. And in the end, stripped of a public option and with abortion language that undermines the stated promise to end gender discrimination in pricing in order to placate Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, the bill passed with one Republican vote in the house and none in the Senate.

It is now abundantly clear that rather than trying to help craft a health reform bill that is more to their liking, Republicans, who would need to prevent Democrats in the Senate from reaching sixty votes on the final passage of the conference committee bill have instead bet the farm on making it fail. Their best hope is to try and delay the bill until some Democrat breaks ranks, or maybe they are hoping that Robert Byrd has a heart attack next month, or heck who knows what they are hoping, anything to make it fail.

Under these circumstances there is no reason at all to talk to Republicans. They will vote against it anyway and their entire agenda is delay, not serious negotiation. You'd have a better chance of trying to convince the chief Ayatollah of Iran to become a Mormon.

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