Bipartisanship gives focused health care reform new life
© Greg Nash

For most of 2017, the idea of bipartisan health care reform coming to Washington seemed fanciful if not outright crazy.

But now it just might happen.

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Building on work done by the House Problem Solvers Caucus over the summer, Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderOvernight Finance: Trump says shutdown 'could happen' | Ryan, conservatives inch closer to spending deal | Senate approves motion to go to tax conference | Ryan promises 'entitlement reform' in 2018 Senate approves motion to go to tax conference House conservatives, Ryan inch closer toward spending deal MORE (R-Tenn.) and ranking member Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayDemocrats turn on Al Franken VA slashes program that helps homeless veterans obtain housing: report The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (D-Wash.) have released a bipartisan plan to stabilize the health care marketplace and keep health insurance premiums down for the American people. Their fix is not yet law—the plan will need to clear several additional hurdles. But its very existence deserves notice because it suggests bipartisanship may be making a comeback on Capitol Hill. And we need to understand why.

When the Founders were shaping our constitutional democracy, they intended for the House of Representatives to reflect more immediate popular opinion. Senators, blessed (or sometimes cursed) with longer terms in office, were to shave the rough edges off hastily considered House legislation. More recently, however, as my friend Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat Meghan McCain knocks Bannon: 'Who the hell are you' to criticize Romney? Dems demand Tillerson end State hiring freeze, consult with Congress MORE (R-Ariz.) said in his dramatic return to the Senate this summer, the Senate has rarely lived up to its reputation as the worlds greatest deliberative body. Senators have become prone to behave as the Founders expected House members to act, abandoning their role, as George Washington once envisioned, as a saucer to cool the Houses hot tea.

Earlier this year, the House Problem Solvers Caucus stepped into that political void. With the Senate caught in the throes of hyperpartisanship, a group of 40+ members, evenly divided between House Republicans and House Democrats, began working together to craft bipartisan solutions to issues that had otherwise stalled. They figured if they could work out some agreements on the House side, they would be able to inspire the same sort of approach in the Senate.

The Problem Solvers clearly figured out two key insights that are giving them growing clout on Capitol Hill. First, these Democrats and Republicans recognized that policy solutions did exist for many our countrys big challenges, from health care to immigration, and from tax reform to infrastructure. America wasnt out of options—Washington just seemed incapable of seizing them.

Second, the Problem Solvers deduced that the nations political problems were driven largely by the fact that the far left and the far right were better organized than those who wanted to fix the nations problems. Together, they resolved that if they wanted to exert real influence, they would need a new approach. So, taking a page from the far-right Freedom Caucus, they formed a bloc and instituted bylaws requiring the whole group, Democrats and Republicans, to support any bill that had sufficient support from members of both parties within the Caucus. And they got to work.

Initially, no one expected the Caucus to touch health care. But when Sen. McCain returned from his cancer diagnosis to vote against the Republican-only repeal plan this summer, the Problem Solvers saw a window. A small group began meeting late at night to hash through a bipartisan fix. Both sides recognized that neither would like everything in the bill—but that a collaborative effort would be better for both sides than the status quo—and that their joint effort would be better for the country.

Lo and behold, they emerged with a plan to stabilize the health care marketplace. The plan had five points, but it was centered around an essential deal: The federal government would continue providing cost-sharing reduction payments (CSRs) to help subsidize the cost of insurance premiums and co-pays for those who cannot afford it, and states would be given greater flexibility to manage their individual exchanges. To great fanfare—this was the only bipartisan approach offered in the current Congress—they released the plan to the public. The question was whether the Senate would take it up.

Initially, things looked grim. The Senate seemed focused on a GOP-only plan called Graham-Cassidy. But the steady drumbeat of the support for the Problem Solvers health care fix eventually turned the tide. Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) and Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) came to Washington to support the bipartisan effort. No Labels launched a grassroots effort to show citizen support. And in the wake of President Trumps plan to cut off the federal cost sharing payments, Alexander and Murray emerged with a compromise bill that reflected the Problem Solvers Caucuss basic bargain.

This compromise is not law yet. But whatever happens with this particular piece of legislation, it points to a new way for Washington to do business. If solutions to our big challenges exist, we need not be held hostage to the demands of the far right and left. Bipartisanship is not dead yet. The Problem Solvers are pointing our way out of the darkness. We just need to follow the light.

Joe Lieberman is a former U.S. senator from Connecticut and a national co-chair of No Labels.