Why Obama Will Stay Bipartisan
John Harwood of The New York Times has sketched an emerging scenario in which the Obama administration seeks comprehensive health care and energy reform without significant Republican support. Democrats are increasingly talking about abandoning the pretense of bipartisanship and putting the historic legislation in a filibuster-proof budget resolution could be passed by simple Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. With Republicans mostly unwilling to support President Obama even when he adopts their ideas (for example, tax cuts in the stimulus bill), the strategy is tempting, but still not likely.
Leave aside that Obama seems temperamentally loathe to shed the bipartisan, “let us reason together” approach that got him elected. The Democratic barons of the Senate, Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D) are largely opposed to the budget reconciliation route which would bypass the Senate rules that require 60 votes to end debate and send a bill to a floor vote. And the political landscape on both health and energy issues still favors Obama.
While liberals fret and conservatives threaten to filibuster, Obama’s notion of comprehensive health care reform still has broad support among the American public, business, and even the insurance industry. Most of the tough decisions about health care reform have yet to be made, but a Capitol Hill consensus around a big expansion in coverage is not implausible. You can be sure the leaders of the post-AIG insurance industry will be striving for at least the appearance of of civic responsibility, which could give reformers more leverage.
Obama’s plans for energy reform to deal with global warming are more detailed and admittedly more problematic. As TWI’s Aaron Wiener points out in his story today, climate change is receding as a concern among economically stressed Americans, but Obama has little choice but to lead on the issue at some point. His budget’s plan for a cap and trade program to limit greenhouse gases is the most serious new idea on the table. True, it was ignored or worse, by John McCain, Judd Gregg and other Senate Republicans who professed to want to lead on the issue only last year. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) told The Times that he expects “massive defections” from moderate Democrats on the cap and trade bill.
But Democratic defections depend on the specifics of the legislation, now being written by Rep. Henry Waxman’s (D-Calif.) House Energy Committee. Waxman’s bill is still weeks away, and Obama has not yet deployed his persuasive powers on the issue.
Democrats want to pressure the GOP into negotiation while Obama wants to keep the hand of bipartisanship open to the few and the brave among Republicans who actually want to cooperate in governing. As with the stimulus program, Obama only needs the support of a few Senate Republicans to prevail in the end, and he still has a fair shot of getting it on health care and climate change. Until the Republicans or nervous Democrats slam the door — which they haven’t done yet on these two issues — Obama seems unlikely to change his strategy.