President Barack Obama is likely in September to end Democratic efforts to work with Republicans on health-care legislation and press for a party-line vote if the stalemate on the issue in the U.S. Senate persists, a person close to the White House said.
The president and his advisers have started devising a strategy to pass a measure by relying only on the Democratic majority in each house of Congress, said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In a separate interview, former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle said Obama is losing patience with negotiations between three Democrats and three Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee, the only congressional panel seeking a bipartisan consensus on a plan to remake the nation’s health- care system.
“He’s waited and waited,” Daschle said yesterday after meeting with the president. “He has indicated, much to the chagrin of people in his party, that virtually everything’s on the table. And he’s gotten almost nothing in return for it.”
A move by Democrats to seek a partisan bill may provoke a backlash from Republicans and weaken public support for the health-care overhaul, Obama’s top domestic priority. It might also result in watered-down legislation.
Former Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole told reporters earlier this summer that while he believed the Democrats could pass a bill on a party-line vote, it would be a mistake.
"If there is not a Senate Republican vote for the package, then the American people are going to be very skeptical,"
Pressing for Legislation
Obama, who declared Aug. 20 “we’re going to get this done one way or another,” is pressing the lawmakers to revamp a health-care system that accounts for about a sixth of the nation’s economy and leaves about 46 million people uninsured.
The effort has been stalled by debates over whether to create a government-run insurance program to compete with private insurers, mandate that employers cover workers, and impose potentially unpopular new taxes, from a surtax on the richest Americans to a levy on the most-generous health plans.
While three House committees and one Senate panel have passed legislation, talks among the so-called Gang of Six negotiators on the Senate Finance Committee have dragged on for months. Senate Democrats such as Charles Schumer of New York have said that if the negotiators can’t strike a deal by Sept. 15, the party may go it alone.
Holding Out Hope
Daschle said the president continues to hope that Republican Senators Charles Grassley of Iowa, Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Olympia Snowe of Maine will support his agenda, as a result of their talks with finance panel chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat.
Yet Daschle said, "there's a realization that we have to be prepared for a Plan B"
That process allows the Senate to pass, with 51 votes instead of 60 typically needed for contentious legislation, measures intended to cut the federal budget deficit either through spending cuts or tax increases.
While the Democrats control 60 seats in the Senate, enough to quash Republican efforts to block action on the bill, they can’t rely on all those votes because of the illnesses of two lawmakers, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, and Robert Byrd of West Virginia.
Reconciliation is complicated, though “it’s not without precedent,” Daschle said. He said both across-the-board tax cuts during President George W. Bush’s first term were enacted through the process.
Feeling Left Out
The other finance committee negotiators are Democrats Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico. Annoyance has grown among some senators who feel excluded. One lawmaker, John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, has publicly criticized the Baucus-led talks.
“There are 94 other senators that probably want to be involved in this process,” Daschle said.
He said while Obama hasn’t made a firm decision to abandon a bipartisan approach, “it’s important to put policy ahead of process. And at some point he has to make that decision.”
Two top White House advisers in mid-July telegraphed the possibility of a partisan strategy, saying in interviews that near-unanimous resistance from Republicans may force Obama to push the legislation through.
Rahm Emanuel, White House chief of staff, said reconciliation wasn’t the president’s preferred route, yet was “an alternative vehicle.” David Axelrod, the president’s top political strategist, reinforced that view.
Conrad, who as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, would oversee attempts to use reconciliation, has criticized the idea. Senate procedures would require the measure be stripped of anything not related to the budget, and the timeframe for the legislation to become deficit-neutral would be five years, instead of the 10 years that lawmakers are currently using.
“You’ll be left with Swiss cheese for legislation,” Conrad said in an Aug. 3 interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose. “Those who say blithely, ‘we’ll just go for reconciliation,’ I don’t think they’ve done their homework.”
Democrats would also be forced to take complete ownership of the plan and might face retaliation from Republicans. Under Senate rules, Republicans could tie the chamber in knots by demanding procedures such as the reading of 1,000-page bills before they are brought to the floor, slowing Senate business.