The much-ballyhooed “health care summit” between President Obama and congressional Democrats and Republicans was held last Thursday. Few if any thought the meeting would result in agreement on a bipartisan bill that would breeze through the halls of Congress. The Republicans wanted any legislation to start from scratch and be built in a true bipartisan fashion. The Democrats rejected that approach and said the bills enacted by the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate had to serve as the benchmark for any legislation.
If everyone knew the “summit” wasn’t going to accomplish anything, why was it held?
From the standpoint of the Republicans, not showing up wasn’t an option. Had they refused the president’s invitation to attend, they would have been lambasted for closing the door in advance on any possibility of a bipartisan approach to health care reform.
The Democrats certainly had nothing to lose by attending the summit. The bill enacted by the House had barely enough votes to succeed in the heavily Democratic chamber. The Senate bill was enacted with exactly the 60 votes needed to cut off the filibuster—with every Democrat voting for it and every Republican voting against it. That was, of course, before the Republican Scott Brown won the open Democratic Senate Seat in Massachusetts that became vacant when Ted Kennedy passed away. Brown won that seat by campaigning to be the 41st vote to stop the health care legislation.
The president had the most to gain from the “summit.” In the give-and-take with the GOP at its conference in Baltimore earlier this year, Team Obama felt the president hit a home run. His poll numbers improved for a short period of time because, his advisors believed, his “bipartisan” credentials had been burnished. The West Wing crowd developed a strategy to move the stalled health care legislation forward using the “summit” as a starting point.
The strategy called for using the marathon photo op to give the president’s sagging popularity another bump in the polls and to put an “obstructionist” face on the Republicans. The targets for the White House game plan are the wavering Democrats whose votes are needed to ram through the legislation by using the “reconciliation” process that would bypass the filibuster that the Republicans can now successfully employ with their 41 votes.
It is obvious that President Obama and the Democrats will now say “we tried!” and move on to the controversial reconciliation approach that will create an even larger firestorm in the halls of Congress. But that will come with a price. Polling data shows the public does not support the expansive (and expensive) bills being pushed by the Democratic majorities. Polling also shows that jobs and the economy—not health care—are the issues the public wants addressed. Many voters who have worries about the economy are perplexed over the amount of time and energy devoted to health care while unemployment continues to grow.
The White House strategy to use the reconciliation process contains much uncertainty, but there is one thing certain about the approach: it will keep the high-profile health care debate going for months. If the public is tired of the focus on the health care issue now and progressively less supportive of the effort as time goes by, how is that a plus for the Democrats? The president’s team seems to think that doubling down their bets on health care will eventually bring them a win. Perhaps so. But it could just as easily turn off the voters so badly that they foreclose on the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and make President Obama a lame duck less than two years into his presidency.
Dan Juneau is the President of the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry (LABI)