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President Obama was never truly out of the reform process. His aides were always deeply involved in negotiations. He made personal phone calls to lawmakers in both parties, led meetings in the White House with key Congressional players. But there’s a difference between talking about health care reform and negotiating health care reform. And it appears President Obama was rarely engaged in detailed negotiations. The result: President Obama was blamed for ideas and provisions (think pork) included in the reform bills Congress passed which he may never have supported.
Back in October I wrote that President Obama needed to get personally engaged in reconciling the various committee bills into a House and Senate version of health care reform (the manager marks developed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid). My point was that the chances of reform improved “if Congress – and the public – have a clear understanding of the Administration’s legislative ambitions.” The post went on to say “President Obama wanted Congress to participate in the reform process. They have. Now it’s his turn.”
Again, I’m not saying President Obama and his Administration was disengaged. But they also were not defining the legislation either.
This is no longer the case. According to the Associated Press “House and Senate negotiators resumed marathon talks with Obama at the White House around 9 p.m. Thursday. The president left the Cabinet Room meeting shortly after 1 a.m. Friday and the session ended about 25 minutes later. The Washington Post reports on President Obama’s personal involvement in working out a critical compromise with labor leaders. (The compromise, according to the Post, exempt union members from a proposed surtax on expensive insurance plans until 2018, five years after the legislation would take effect. This was not the President’s first “marathon” negotiating session with legislative leaders. Nor was it the first time he negotiated with interest groups. But it’s clear President Obama is now deeply engaged in fashioning health care reform legislation.
While Presidents usually do not get personally involved in drafting legislation, health care reform is far from typical legislation. We’re talking about impacting one-sixth of the nation’s economy and a legislative effort decades in the making. The chances of President Obama simply accepting whatever health care reforms Congress came up with was nil. Earlier involvement might have saved lawmakers a lot of pain – what will be the political cost for House Democrats who voted for a government-run health plan running for re-election in moderate districts? – but there was no doubt he would be actively at the table before the bill was finalized.
Health care reform will move quickly now. The Associated Press, in the story cited above, says it’s only a matter of days, if not hours. President Obama would like to have the health care reform bill signed into law prior to his state of the union address later this month or early February. Since Democratic leaders have pledged to put the legislation online for at least 72 hours before a vote is taken, that doesn’t leave a lot of time.
But there’s another motivation driving the midnight meetings: fear that Republicans could actually win the special election in Massachusetts to fill the vacancy created by the passing of Senator Edward Kennedy. Democrats are so concerned about the potential for an upset, they featured President Obama in a video email to Democratic voters in the state warning that the fate of health care reform depends on the outcome of the election. If the Republican long-shot effort succeeds, Democrats will need to pass health care reform before the Senator-elect can be sworn in. While they can challenge the results of a close race for awhile (and thereby delay certification of the election) the longer they resort to that tactic the greater the political danger.
Regardless of the motivation, President Obama’s personal engagement in negotiating the health care reform bill that Congress passes means he will own the result. The legislation will not reflect everything President Obama wants (or doesn’t want) concerning health care reform, but it will embody what the Administration could accomplish concerning health care reform.
The term “ObamaCare” has been tossed around loosely. Virtually every version of reform legislation considered by Congress was described as such. This was inaccurate. Those bill’s belonged to Congress, not President Obama.
The health care bill that will emerge in the next few days, the bill likely to arrive on his desk in the next couple of weeks, that is the legislation that will be a part of President Obama’s, that will be “ObamaCare” – for better or worse.