Obama sets stage for using budget maneuver to pass health reform

President Barack Obama this week has been laying the foundation for Senate Democrats to use a controversial budget maneuver to pass healthcare reform.

By offering Republicans olive branches during his address to Congress on Wednesday, Obama has set up a win-win situation. If GOP lawmakers embrace compromise, a healthcare bill would pass Congress easily. But the more likely scenario is that Republicans will continue to oppose Obama’s plan, and the president later this fall will be able to note he tried to strike a deal with the GOP but could not.

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That will set up a Democratic argument that Senate leaders have been forced to use a partisan budget tool known as reconciliation to pass a health bill through the Senate by a simple majority, instead of 60 votes. Under the budget plan they passed earlier this year, Democrats could invoke the reconciliation process on Oct. 15.

Republicans contend that the use of reconciliation would be at odds with Obama’s call for bipartisanship during his 2008 presidential campaign. But Obama has countered that argument in recent days by forcefully resurrecting the anti-Washington rhetoric that got him elected.

In Cincinnati on Monday, Obama blamed the "usual bickering in Washington" for the "funk" supporters of healthcare reform were enduring. And in a discussion with students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va., on Tuesday, Obama said "there are a lot of politicians like that who, all they're thinking about is just, ‘How do I get reelected?’ and so they never actually get anything done."

Then on Wednesday night, Obama sought to portray his health reform plan as one that contains both Republican and Democratic ideas.

"The time for bickering is over. The time for games has passed," Obama said. "Now is the season for action."

Rep. Joe Wilson’s (R-S.C.) outburst on Wednesday was an unexpected gift to the White House, accentuating Obama’s point that bitter politics is getting in the way of improving the healthcare of Americans.

White House officials insist they still wants a broad bipartisan deal, but — realizing that is likely out of reach — they have shifted their strategy to focus on the bottom line.

“I think getting something done is paramount here," a senior administration official said before Obama’s address to Congress. "We want to bring along everyone who’s willing to come with us, but the fact that not everyone is willing to come with us is not an excuse to fail in dealing with what is really a fundamental issue that has to be done."

On "Good Morning America" on Wednesday, Obama repeated his call for Congress to stop playing politics. He also acknowledged he made a tactical error in giving lawmakers too much leeway to craft a bill.

"I, out of an effort to give Congress the ability to do their thing and not step on their toes, probably left too much ambiguity out there, which allowed, then, opponents of reform to come in and to fill up the airwaves with a lot of nonsense," Obama said.

The president also said that the White House has made every effort to include Republicans and their ideas in the process, but blamed "unyielding partisanship" for the absence of compromise.

“Part of the frustration I have is, is that on the Republican side there are wonderful people who really operated on the basis of pragmatism and common sense and getting things done,” Obama said. “Those voices have been — been, I think, shouted down on that side.”

Obama publicly accepted Wilson’s apology while at the same time decrying "name-calling" he says the American people won't tolerate.

The president went so far as to warn Republicans that he "will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it's better politics to kill this plan than improve it."

Another aspect of the Democrats’ rationale for using reconciliation will likely be the $787 billion stimulus bill, which they note included tax cuts but was only supported by three Republicans in Congress.

Republicans, predictably wary of Obama's maneuvering, said if Obama is setting up a defense of reconciliation, it will do little to blunt the blowback from both Congress and the American people.

“If Democrats use controversial insider tactics to force a proposal that the majority of Americans disagree with, not only would they guarantee bipartisan opposition, but they would also spark a new level of outrage among a huge majority of people in this country," said a Senate Republican leadership aide.