Monday, February 08, 2010

As in Afghanistan, Obama picks "none of the above" from the HCR menu

There would seem to be large risks inherent in Obama's planned half-day health care summit with leaders of both parties on Feb. 26. It's the final farewell to HCR supporters' fervent wish that the House would swiftly pass the Senate bill with an agreed-on reconciliation blueprint -- a dream that was already dead. It risks letting more House Democrats twist and pull in multiple directions if their political outlook continues to deteriorate. 

It should be recognized, though, that the plan is completely consistent with the strategy that Obama has outlined at least since the State of the Union address -- and in fact, as I have argued in detail, since his Jan. 21 interview with George Stephanopoulos, in which Obama was less than clear and seemed -- accidentally, I think -- to indicate that he was open to a scaled-back bill.  The steps that he's outlined -- and begun to execute -- with increasing clarity since that point are these: re-present the pending bill to the American people; defend its "core elements"; explain why they cannot be pulled apart; solicit Republican "ideas" and expose their vacuity; get the Republicans on record in the interim stonewalling a jobs bill and tough banking regulations. This public campaign is designed to generate political cover for Democrats to pass the Senate bill with reconciliation fixes -- or, best case, to pick off a Republican or two with a high-profile concession such as building tort reform into HCR, and so enabling a normal Senate-House bill merger procedure.

In fact, the apparent risks of the summit are largely illusory.
With its announcement, the full plan -- or trap, if it works properly -- falls into place. The Feb. 26 date creates a deadline for Democrats to get their negotiation for a "reconciliation sidecar" to the Senate bill finished, while the summit itself sets the stage for them to pass that fix after Obama demonstrates Republican bad faith to the country one more time. It's been increasingly plain that Democrats are not going to pass HCR legislation before then. With the meeting between Obama and House Republicans as template, Obama has structured this "exchange of ideas" as a debate he can't lose. He's going to show that nation that that "plan" Republicans have been waving around is an empty book:
The president offered a number of questions that his party would have for the Republicans.
“How do you guys want to lower costs? How do you guys intend to reform the insurance market so that people with pre-existing conditions, for example, can get health care?” he said. “How do you want to make sure that the 30 million people who don’t have health insurance can get it? What are your ideas specifically?”
Re that refrain in the SOTU: "let me know." As at the Republican House retreat, he will make it very clear that you can't do it for $6 billion a year, as the Republican "plan" (projected to cover an additional 3 million people rather than 30 mlllion) proposes to spend.

Obama also stated directly that he is not open to starting over. That means either passing the Senate bill with reconciliation fixes or passing a merged House-Senate bill with at least one Republican senator.

As he did in Afghanistan, when faced with an apparent menu of choices in the wake of the Massachusetts senate election, Obama picked 'none of the above.' The obvious course for ardent supporters of the Democrats' HCR bills was for Obama to seize control of House-Senate negotiations immediately and work a quick fix.  Conversely, Democrats like Bill Pascrell wanted to take a "clear message" from voters that they did not like the HCR bills -- and so run away from them, passing a few scraps and patches that they could call "health care reform."  The Obama team apparently concluded that Congressional Democrats could not be rallied in the current political climate -- or at least that there was a high probability of failure in the attempt. So they settled on a plan to first change public perception of the reform effort and thus to recapture wavering House members and senators.  Perhaps by serendipity, the Republican House retreat pointed the way.

It may not work. But the strategy is clear -- and again, has existed in outline since Brown's election and probably before.  Fears that the Administration would countenance back-burnering the HCR effort were apparently unfounded.  There is now a timeline as well as a path to getting a bill passed.

Next: Afghan redux: Obama's HCR two-step 

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