The GOP's Health Care Opportunity

Washington Matters

The GOP's Health Care Opportunity

Republicans are throwing fits that Democrats are reserving the right to use a parliamentary procedure later this year to prevent a filibuster of health legislation. It's understandable. The tactic, what's known as reconciliation, is heavy handed and highly partisan -- as Democrats were quick to say when Republicans used it  to pass both rounds of President George Bush's tax cuts.

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is right when he complains that Democrats want to negotiate while keeping "a gun in one hand." But he and his fellow Republicans ought to see the opportunity this presents to influence the process and breathe some much needed life into their party at the same time.

Democrats have said they want to negotiate and will use reconciliation only if Republicans try only to obstruct passage of a bill. Republicans should call their bluff and  try to work actively on health legislation. If Democrats are good to their word, they will need 60 votes to pass a bill. And there are enough moderate and conservative Democrats, including brand new party member Sen. Arlen Specter, to keep them short of that goal if they're not willing to make some compromises on the issue. Republicans won't be able to put a GOP brand on health reform, but they can keep it from getting excessively liberal and leaning too heavily on a government role. That would be well worth the effort, given that in the end a bill is likely to pass with or without their influence. 

Republicans have spent considerable time fumbling around for direction and purpose and, as we noted here last week, they haven't had much success. By trying to define themselves in terms of what they are against and searching for an ideological identity to unite their base, party leaders are missing the boat. National disenchantment with Republicans grows from a much more fundamental problem -- a lack of faith that the GOP can govern effectively and solve national problems. Genuine GOP participation in the shaping of a health care reform bill could change that perception. The other option -- sitting on their hands, watching a liberal bill pass and hoping it fails -- will only add to it.

Republicans actually have a model for how this can work in the welfare reform debate more than a decade ago. Republicans initially tried to force a very partisan bill down Democrats throats but President Bill Clinton vetoed it twice. However, Clinton was a champion of welfare reform himself and used the veto not to kill the bill but to force serious negotiations with Republicans and Democrats to reshape it.

Many congressional Democrats despised the measure, but they used what strength they had to force some key changes such as beefed up childcare help and job training programs for welfare parents, who were being required to work. That was enough for some Democrats to support the bill and smooth final passage. Other Democrats still opposed the final product but were proud to have helped make it, in their view, less odious. It passed each chamber with nearly unanimous GOP support but nearly half of Democrats voted no. Welfare reform is now generally recognized as an important piece of legislation and a model of bipartisan legislating during a period that was even more bitterly partisan than today.

It also was a signature accomplishment of the GOP revolution that demonstrated an ability to govern. But the party developed an increasing appetite for divisive wedge issues -- largely social issues such as gay marriage and abortion -- that played well with the conservative base but didn't interest or upset the rest of the electorate. The party became smaller and more uniformly conservative and is now flirting with irrelevance -- not so much because of its principles, but because the principles it has chosen to stress and the image it has carved out have little resonance with the worries and cares of most Americans. What better place to start showing that the party takes governance and solving national problems seriously than playing a genuinely constructive role in health care reform, one of the most pressing issues of our age?

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