Yes, they can — and just did

Throughout the spring, the White House has been sending a clear message about its legislative agenda to the congressional leadership: Yes, you can — and by God you will. Most experienced lobbying hands and the press have been very skeptical about President Obama’s ambitious plans. “Never happen,” said most observers. “The Congress has never moved that fast and never will.”

Then the climate bill came and went in a blinding flash. In meetings over the past month, more and more legislative strategists have been pulling back on their skepticism about fast action on healthcare reform, next up on the president’s domestic agenda.

The hearings on Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court have been sucking a lot of the airtime out of broadcast news schedules, but behind-the-scenes work on a healthcare plan has been frenetic. As recently as a week ago it seemed impossible that there would be anything even slightly resembling a plan on which to base actual legislation. This week, House Democrats rolled out a plan with a lot of details and ambitious goals. On Wednesday, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee actually reported out a bill — a feat that, going into the weekend, a dozen different lobbyists told me was impossible. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and few key committee members may be holding an event Thursday to describe what is in their proposal and why it is what America needs. Rumor is, there may be a couple of surprise guests at that event, which should increase the buzz factor around the accomplishment considerably.

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Why is all this happening so quickly? Well, there are a few good reasons. The prospect of full five-day weeks in August and a shortened summer break does have the ability to focus those on Capitol Hill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have made clear that they plan to keep people at their desks until at least a couple of committees have completed their work — keeping the president’s and the Democratic leadership’s promise not to go home until real progress is made on healthcare reform.

An even more important reason for what Dodd is calling a historic accomplishment is simply that this White House and this Congress are willing to change the Washington establishment rules. The administration, and some powerful interest groups, decided they didn’t want a major war over healthcare reform this year. In fact, they haven’t even been looking for a real skirmish. Representatives from healthcare businesses ranging from insurers to hospitals to pharmaceuticals have chosen to sit down and try to reason together in quiet meeting rooms rather than launch highly visible and noisy battles.

The White House and PhRMA were two of the first to find common ground on the broad outlines of reform while reserving the right to disagree over some of the details. Various trade groups representing the hospital industry announced a “surprise” agreement a few weeks ago that not only helped toward the goal of universal coverage but also made some deep cuts in the costs that are the biggest single driving force for healthcare reform. Insurers worked closely with the Senate HELP committee, first with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and then with Dodd in Kennedy’s absence, and continue to search for common ground with the White House and other congressional leaders.

Yes, all these negotiations have left blurred lines and any number of issues where the details could trip up the process of getting to reform. How to pay for a plan the president wants and what role the public and the private sector will play in healthcare delivery are just two big issues — each of which has a whole set of knotty problems to be untangled before a bill will be ready for the president’s desk. But the environment is one of cooperation, not confrontation, this year, and that alone is a big step forward.

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We’ve seen some unexpected groupings of trade associations, industries and politicians as healthcare reform has slowly and quietly moved forward this year. Expect to see even more of that in the future, with a lot less finger-pointing and a lot more pulling together. It has made for some very interesting, and sometimes fast-moving, sausage-making up on Capitol Hill this year. With demand for reform continuing strong and the 2010 election calendar looming, we can expect a lot more of where that came from.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen. E-mail: ben@gcsa.com