Democrats Could Win With a Truly Bi-Partisan Health Care Reform Strategy

Hopefully the cottage industry in health care reform paranoia can calm down now. No one in Washington is talking about strategies to short circuit the election results in Massachusetts this week in which state Senator Scott Brown, soon to be the Republican’s “41st vote,” upset the Democratic candidate in a special election. While some dismayed Democrats did consider ways of passing legislation before Senator Brown is sworn into office, there was never really a chance that would happen.

One reason Senator Brown won was a reaction to the hubris Democrats in Congress displayed over the past 12 months concerning health care reform. Favors were dealt out to key lawmakers party favors at a kid’s birthday if that’s what it took to secure their votes. A temporary exemption from an excise tax on expensive health insurance policies was crafted for unions to get their support. Deals were brokered with large pharmaceutical companies and others to get them on-board. This is politics as usual, practiced by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Engaging in politics as usual, however, was the problem: voters in 2008 expressed their desire for change. Politics as usual is exactly what the public did not want.

Given this reality, Democrats passing a health care reform bill by jamming something through would be political malpractice of the highest order. Besides, there were never enough rank-and-file lawmakers in the caucus willing to go along with such silliness. So, not surprisingly, instead of passing health care reform by manipulating the rules, Democrats are now taking a breather, gathering their thoughts and developing a strategy for moving forward.

After some reflection, Democratic leaders will realize the scope of health care reform they can pass is extremely limited. Expensive, intrusive reforms are no longer an option. This doesn’t mean they can’t pass some version of reform. It just means that the reform they can pass will need to be less expensive, less comprehensive, and less intrusive than they had hoped.

What health care reform can be passed, and how long it will take, will depend in large part on which of two strategies the White House and Congressional Leaders choose to take.

President Barack Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi can either pursue health care reform that gains the vote of the fewest number of Republican lawmakers necessary or legislation that can earns support from a meaningful percentage of Congressional Republicans. Following the former strategy would see them negotiate almost exclusively with Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. Seeking truly bi-partisan reform would require negotiating with a far larger group.

The bare minimum strategy will be tempting. It requires the least amount of compromise. As I wrote the other day, they could bare the current legislation down to its cost containment provisions, health insurance reforms, and some of the less expensive ideas to expand coverage to more Americans. Such a scaled-back bill might get the support of either Senator Snowe or Senator Collins – or both. (Who knows, even Senator Brown might be supportive. He does have to run for re-election in Massachusetts in 2012. He won the special election by positioning himself as an independent and downplaying his Republican affiliation. Showing his independence from hard-line Republicans is a reasonable political strategy for him.)

The problem with the bare minimum strategy is its what got Democrats into their current mess. By pursuing health care reform that never had a chance of gaining broad support, President Obama, Senator Reid and Speaker Pelosi assured a long, politically ugly legislative process – one that required the kind of deal making that voters, especially independent voters, had voted to change in 2008.

Instead, Democrats could take the advice of House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, who observed, “Medicare wasn’t done in one fell swoop. You lay a foundation and you get this thing done over time.” If Democrats had taken this approach from the beginning health care reform might have been enacted already. Instead months were spent battling over issues like a government-run health plan that neither Republicans nor enough moderate Democrats could support. While hanging tough for a liberal wish list pleased their base (for awhile), it was inevitable moderate Democrats would determine the final health care reform package.

To gain sufficient Republican votes, Democrats will have to be willing to accept fairly limited reforms for now. They will need to include some meaningful malpractice reform. Democrats needs not include every and any provision Republican demand. Their goal is not to pass a bill by unanimous consent. Democrats just need to offer enough to peel off a significant number of Republicans – say 12 in the Senate and 35 or so in the House. Legislation with meaningful malpractice reform and a low sticker price could do that. Is this realistic? Well, there are a number of Republicans running in moderate seats, too. Running for re-election as a candidate who “opposed President Obama at every turn” is not a recipe for job security in such seats.

If Democrats succeed in passing bi-partisan reform they’ll have laid the foundation for future health care reform efforts. But what if Republicans unify behind a strategy of blocking reform of any kind, regardless of how moderate that reform might be? Such a strategy would just confirm that the GOP is the party of politics as usual. And in 2010 that’s not an image voters are likely to reward.