Healthcare harbinger

Yet if reform should meet its long-awaited death at the hands of Democratic divisions, Obama is right, the party can kiss any and all of its broad reform goals goodbye. The president just rolled out his education agenda, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) unveiled his roadmap for financial-services regulation, there is a new climate change bill in the Senate, and the administration continues to promise immigration reform. But in the wake of the spectacular failure of the party’s signature initiative, the transformation agenda would wash out right along with it.

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Despite a lack of Republican cooperation on anything since Obama was inaugurated, save for a few GOP senators voting for a small jobs package last month, there have been recent hints that the minority party may be willing to work with Democrats on several fronts. There are House Republicans talking to Democrats about the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is working with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on immigration and with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) on a climate change bill that scraps the controversial cap-and-trade measures passed by the House. Graham, who speaks regularly with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, has also been singlehandedly helping the administration navigate the stinging nettles of a new terror policy it is moving to embrace after Obama’s decisions on Guantánamo Bay and a civilian trial for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were roundly rejected by Republicans, independents and an increasing number of Democrats.

The White House has decided to shift with the political winds on national security and on the domestic agenda as well. After the all-in on healthcare reform, which cost a year of time and enormous political capital, the administration is preparing to shift away from the big reforms the president talked up during his campaign and his entire first year in office. He seems to have accepted that divided Democratic majorities in the Congress get in the way of transformation. The Washington Post reported this week that the president will focus only on financial regulation and a legislative push to mitigate direct corporate giving to political candidates now permitted by a recent Supreme Court ruling, pushing off other reforms in hopes that the party can unite around a populist agenda that paints Republicans as defenders of Wall Street and big business.

But if Democrats fail to pass healthcare, it is doubtful they can hold together on regulatory reform. Without the long-sought prize of reform, liberal Democrats will dig in as deep as Republicans. It is hard to imagine the party coalescing around a bill that would have enough teeth for liberal Democrats but appeal to conservative Democrats as well.

Indeed, without healthcare, it’s hard to see the Democrats passing much of anything into law in this Congress. And they can forget about the next one. If Democrats keep control of the House and Senate next year, it won’t be by much. There are more Republicans coming to town, and the new ones aren’t interested in bipartisanship.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.