Belfast Telegraph

Democrats dither on reforms as Republicans dig in heels

The Grand Old Party is on a roll in Congress ahead of November's mid-term elections, writes US Correspondent Jim Dee

Barack Obama's healthcare summit on Thursday was billed as an effort to build bridges with Republicans to tackle one of America's most vexing public policy issues.

But, by time the six-hour televised rhetoric-marathon ended, Republicans hadn't budged - and Dick Cheney's recent prediction that Obama will be a one-term wonder began to look prescient indeed.

Although clearly frustrated by the latest episode of the Republicans' 'No' theatre, Obama and the Democrats can now claim that they have gone the extra mile to try to work out a compromise with Republicans - only to see their overtures rebuffed again.

Reconciliation, the process by which Senate Democrats can bypass a promised Republican filibuster by using a special rule to pass bills with a simple majority, can now proceed.

However, a USA Today/Gallup poll, released on Thursday, found that Americans oppose using reconciliation to break the current logjam by a 52% to 39% margin.

And, as if that isn't enough to give Democrats pause for thought, the poll also found that, in the absence of a bipartisan bill, people oppose the Democrats' reform prescriptions by a 49% to 42% spread.

A recent poll by the left-leaning Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) found solid opposition to the Senate Democrats' reform proposals.

But, in results echoing a December 2009 New York Times poll, the PCCC also found strong support for the government-run insurance plan - the so-called 'public option' - in many states.

The public option battle may yet be the defining moment of the healthcare fight.

Unlike the bill offered by Senate majority leader Harry Reid late last year, the plan tabled by Democrats in the House of Representatives has a public option.

But when Obama finally published his own plan days before the summit, he had followed Reid's lead and dumped the public option - in spite of having long touted it as key to getting insurance companies to curtail premiums increases and tactics such as denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.

Now Senate Democrats - fuming over the ditching of the public option - are fighting back.

A letter calling for a floor vote on the public option using the reconciliation procedure has been signed by 24 of them. Reid has said that he'll do so if proponents can get enough votes, and the White House supports him. So far, the White House has been mute.

The seemingly endless healthcare dust-up has underscored one glaring reality: Republicans are presently head-and-shoulders above Democrats in terms of tactics.

If Obama and other Democrats were ever really serious about major healthcare reform - as opposed to minor tinkering - might not it have been better to start by calling for the creation of a single-payer system (a necessary euphemism for 'nationalised' given US paranoia about 'Commies') at the outset?

Then, after much bickering and posturing, they could grudgingly accept the fall-back of the public option (which they wanted all along) and thereby achieve a historical breakthrough. As things stand now, Republicans see themselves in a win-win situation.

If the polls are right, digging in their heels and letting the Democrats move ahead on their own will virtually guarantee them sweeping victories in November.

Then the defeats and frustrations that Obama will experience for the remainder of his term will make the last year look like a love-in.

But if Democrats in Congress start acting like the solid majority party that they are, they can dramatically increase their own, as well as Obama's, political stock.

Passing reform legislation, regardless of Republicans kicking and screaming, that delivers prompt and tangible results may swing the fickle pendulum of public opinion back their way by November's mid-term Congressional contests.

On the other hand, if they continue to dither and hesitate, Republicans and US conservatives will rush to fill the vacuum with a large enough avalanche of negative rhetoric and spin to virtually guarantee that the Republicans will rise from the ashes of its 2008 poll drubbing and that the 2012 re-election mountain Obama has to climb may prove all but insurmountable.

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