By Alexander Bolton - 03/22/10 02:00 PM EDT
The passage of healthcare reform gives President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats significant political momentum. After months of infighting, the party is now on the brink of a huge accomplishment after the vote.
Much of the political credit will go to Obama, who convened a healthcare summit with congressional Republicans and Democrats just weeks after Scott Brown’s stunning victory in the Massachusetts Senate race ended the Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
The Senate must still approve a package of changes to the Senate healthcare bill that has now been approved by the House. It is expected to begin consideration of the package this week.
Obama is already set to go out on the road talking up the healthcare legislation with the public. It’s an early bid to reframe the debate around November’s midterm election.
More people oppose than support Obama’s healthcare policies, according to a March 9 Gallup poll, but Democratic strategists think that will change after it is signed into law.
Democratic strategist Paul Begala, who met with Senate Democrats Thursday to discuss the national political environment, noted that polls showed public opposition to President Bill Clinton’s 1993 economic plan, which was later credited with spurring economic prosperity.
“Polls showed that the Clinton economic plan was unpopular until it passed with no Republican votes and it turned the country around,” said Begala, who worked in the Clinton White House.
Once people start getting benefits, Begala predicted they would start to view Democratic leadership in Congress more favorably.
Within the first year of enactment, the Democratic healthcare reform package will give tax credits to small businesses that provide coverage to employees and will allow children to stay on their parents’ health plans until age 26.
It also will prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage to children on the basis of pre-existing conditions, and provide $5 billion to set up pools to help high-risk individuals buy coverage.
The party in control of the White House generally loses seats in a midterm election and Democrats have plenty of vulnerable members. Still, they hope they can gain momentum and stem off significant losses this fall, bolstered by a huge legislative accomplishment they believe they can sell to the public.
Democratic lawmakers and strategists acknowledge their political fortunes rest on the economy, where at least on the short term, the party has some reason for optimism.
Unemployment stands at 9.7 percent, but many economists think the nation is now creating jobs. If the next two monthly reports offer news of hundreds of thousands of jobs being created rather than lost, Democrats would get another boost.
“I think voters will be focused on whether we’re creating jobs or continuing to lose them,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic consultant working with several House lawmakers in tough races.
Devine said if the economy is creating more than 100,000 new jobs a month in the run-up to the election, Democrats will be able to make a strong case that they turned around the Great Recession.
The economy was shedding between 650,000 and 800,000 jobs a month from November through March. The economy lost 36,000 jobs, but that number might have been worse because of brutal February weather.
Looking ahead to November, the economy is not expected to grow enough this year to significantly reduce the unemployment rate.
The Obama administration itself has warned Congress that the country is likely to see unemployment above 9 percent throughout the year, even if the economy is creating jobs on a monthly basis.
If unemployment remains high, it is unclear whether voters will be paying more attention to job creation figures or to the unemployment rate.
Republicans, who did not rise in the polls as Obama and Democrats fell, will batter Democrats on healthcare, arguing the massive legislation is a government takeover of healthcare that could bankrupt the country.
Democrats predict that argument will lose its punch.
“Once we clear the deck of all this procedural back and forth, a lot of the press will spend the next two, three or four weeks afterward talking about what’s in the bill, which means we’ll finally get the message out there,” said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska.)
Durbin said Republicans will have to argue for repealing popular provisions in the bill.
“The Republicans will have to stand up and say we want to repeal those things and I think that will be hard because people will begin to realize these are commonsense changes,” said Durbin.
Still, it’s all about the economy, which will wash healthcare reform to the side if most voters have a sour view.
“If things get worse, there’s going to be revolt in a country and a movement for change and that’s bad news for the party in power,” Devine said.
Some independent analysts are skeptical of Democratic claims that passage of healthcare reform will turn around their political fortunes.
“I’m of the opinion that it doesn’t improve the low approval rating of Democrats,” said Bruce Cain, director of the University of California’s Washington Center, based in D.C.
Cain said passage may stop the party’s slide in the polls by getting the controversial subject out of the media spotlight but the $940 billion bill will make it tough to rebut GOP arguments that the government is growing out of control at a time of soaring federal deficits.
Cain said voters who draw from their personal experiences recoil at the thought of increasing spending in hard economic times.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that reform legislation will reduce the deficit by $138 billion over 10 years, but many voters become more focused on the overall price tag.
Cain said Democrats’ performance in the midterm election would depend on the number of jobs created or lost per month and the public view of the federal debt.
While the positive impact of healthcare reform may be up for debate, there’s consensus that Democrats would have suffered huge damage had it stalled in the House.
Steve Elmendorf, who served as a senior aide to then-House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) when Democrats lost their majority in 1994, said failure to pass the bill would have been a “catastrophe.”
“You have to pass it and then you have to go sell it,” Elmendorf said. “And then they have to spend the rest of the year doing stuff that impacts the job numbers and the economy.”