Now comes the fun part. With the Senate Finance Committee poised to pass its version of comprehensive health care reform we get to one of the more difficult segments of the Kabuki dance: Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid must now reconcile the bills passed by multiple committees into a blended proposal. Which means the time is right for President Barack Obama to publicly define what, exactly, is “Obamacare”.
First some background. In the House, different versions of health care reform legislation have been passed by the House Ways & Means, Energy & Commerce, and Education & Labor committees. To be more precise, while the legislation moved forward by Ways & Means and Education & Labor were very similar, moderate Democratic members on the Energy & Commerce committee gained significant changes in that committee’s version. Speaker Pelosi will now combine the three versions into a “Manger’s Bill.” This is the version that will be debated and voted upon by the full House.
What’s makes Speaker Pelosi’s mash-up of the House Committee’s health care reform bills important is that any changes must be imposed upon it. Her version of the bill is the “default” position. From a legislative process perspective, this puts those seeking changes to the legislative language at a disadvantage.
The same blending process is underway in the Senate. There the task is even harder. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee passed a liberal version of health care reform; the Senate Finance Committee’s plan is much more moderate. The gap between them is far greater than that between the three House committee’s bills. The Associated Press describes Senator Reid’s efforts to blend two disparate health care reform bills as “mission seemingly impossible.” Given the differences in the how the two Committees addressed costs, taxes, whether there should be a government-run plan, the obligation of employers to provide coverage and other controversial items, “seemingly impossible” may be an understatement.
Unless President Obama dives deeper into the details than has publicly been the case. The White House has been engaged in Congressional health care reform negotiations for some time. According to news reports, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, formerly part of the House Leadership, has been the Administration’s point person in these discussions. Until recently, President Obama has been willing to let Congress thrash out the thorny issues related to health care reform, setting forth broad principles. Beginning last month the president has offered more specifics, but hardly enough to clearly define what his version of health care reform looks like. At least not publicly.
With all the Congressional committees having taken a position, the time has come to get specific. Yes, the White House could leave it to Speaker Pelosi and Senator Reid to fashion compromises that can pass their respective chambers, but that only postpones the Administration’s day of reckoning. For after the House and Senate passes their differing versions of reform, a conference committee (made up of both Senators and Representatives) will convene to fashion the final bill. If President Obama waits until the conference committee convenes to publicly engage in the nitty-gritty of reform, it could be too late. Legislators will have been forced to make numerous politically challenging votes. The political payback if the White House then makes those votes unnecessary would be … ugly.
President Obama needs to make his health care reform vision known now, before those votes. He needs to say “this is acceptable;” “this is not.” He needs to spend his political capital to define Obamacare, to give lawmakers the cover they need to make tough votes, and to rally his considerable grassroots organization behind specific legislation.
Publicly defining what he wants in the bill is a huge political risk for President Obama. His positions will anger some supporters and give opponents mounds of ammunition to use against him. Whatever changes Congress makes to the president’s reform plan will be described by the jabbering cable network pundits as a defeat for the Administration. If he accepts those changes he’ll be accused of weakness and flip-flopping. (One of the most insightful columnists around, Richard Reeves recently explained the value and wisdom of political leaders capable of changing their minds).
But the greater risk to the Administration is failing to achieve meaningful health care reform. And if health care reform does pass, the messiness of the process will be soon forgotten. The odds of President Obama getting a health care reform bill sent to his desk increases exponentially if Congress – and the public – have a clear understanding of the Administration’s legislative ambitions.
The policy and political pieces are all on the table. Selecting from among the various provisions contained in the five variations of health care reform passed by Congressional committees won’t be an easy, but it is necessary. President Obama wanted Congress to participate in the reform process. They have. Now it’s his turn.