Sharp momentum shift back to the Democrats after passing health bill

Political momentum has shifted so fast over the last week that it has given Republicans whiplash.

Democrats are heading into the two-week Easter recess in high spirits after passing the most sweeping domestic policy reform since Medicare was enacted four decades ago.

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President Barack Obama on Thursday dared Republicans to make healthcare reform a campaign issue.

“They’re actually going to run on a platform of repeal in November,” Obama said. “Well, I say go for it.”

But even as some Republicans talk of using healthcare as a cudgel, others are questioning the hard-line opposition strategy that limited their input on the substance of healthcare reform and may deny them any chance of shaping financial regulatory reform later this year.

Cracks emerged in the unified front Republicans held throughout most of the healthcare debate. At one point, they had threatened to drag out the final battle over changes to the bill with an endless stream of amendments and budget points of order. But by mid-week, Republicans seemed to lose their appetite for an extended and acrimonious fight. They backed off those threats and allowed the chamber to hold a final vote on Thursday.

“Our constituents expect us to stand up and fight the good fight, but there’s always a reasonableness factor that needs to come into place,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), vice chairwoman of the Senate Republican Conference. “Sometimes there’s a fine line between what is being an advocate for your cause and when you become obstreperous.

“We need to make sure that we’re always cognizant of that and we push appropriately so but recognize where that line is.”

Senators such as Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) had initially planned to offer scores of amendments to stall the healthcare reform fixes and stop Democrats from putting the finishing touches on the legislation.

By Wednesday, however, the political tone had changed.

“The leadership has asked us to focus on substantive amendments,” said DeMint on Wednesday. “I had 50 amendments, I still have them in my back pocket, but I’ll probably only offer two or three.”

The Senate eventually voted on only one DeMint amendment.

Doubts also spread to financial regulatory reform after Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) called off negotiations with Republicans. GOP lawmakers then pulled their amendments from the markup and the legislation passed out of his committee on a party-line vote.

“I just think we should have been engaged since October in trying to seek a compromise bill,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), a member of the Banking panel, in reference to financial regulatory reform. “Once something comes out of committee, you lose a little leverage. It’s one more step along the way.”

For many, the healthcare fight may come to symbolize the tipping point. House passage of broad healthcare reform, which Obama signed on Tuesday, has raised doubts within Republican circles over whether the GOP leadership made a mistake by trying to kill the bill instead of shaping it more to their liking.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said GOP colleagues privately expressed weariness with the hardball political tactics that have heightened partisan tensions.

“There have been a couple of [Republican] senators who have said sometimes, like last night, that ‘this is pointless, I don’t know why we’re doing this,’ ” McCaskill said in reference to a voting session that lasted until the early morning hours Thursday to consider GOP amendments to healthcare reform.

Democrats have repeatedly blasted the GOP as the “Party of No” for blocking business in the Senate. At one point earlier this year, Democratic aides said the Senate was sitting on 290 House-passed bills.



Murkowski acknowledged the danger of being labeled by Democrats, because it’s difficult for voters outside the Beltway to follow the intricacies of Senate procedure.


Even so, Republicans are still willing to take a stand on legislation that Democrats believe is broadly popular.

On Thursday afternoon, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) blocked legislation to extend traditionally non-controversial provisions, such as unemployment insurance and a freeze in scheduled cuts to doctors’ Medicare payments.

Coburn stopped the package because its cost was not offset and would have added to the federal deficit.

Coburn’s stand is similar to a protest Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) waged on the Senate floor last month to block an extension of unemployment benefits and other “must-pass” provisions such as the doctors “fix.”

Democrats blasted Bunning and his GOP colleagues for obstruction and claimed a message victory after Republicans backed down and agreed to a short-term extension.

But Republicans also felt they won something from the confrontation, specifically credit among conservative voters for taking a strong position against additional deficit spending.

Even after passage of healthcare reform, which is considered a major victory for Democrats, Republicans haven’t abandoned tough tactics. But some members of their ranks are beginning to show second thoughts.

“Barack Obama badly wanted Republican votes for his plan. Could we have leveraged his desire to align the plan more closely with conservative views?” wondered David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, in an essay published Sunday.

“Too late now. They are all law.”

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