Monday, November 2, 2009

Strategy appears to work

After months of plodding work by five Congressional committees and weeks of back-room bargaining by Democratic leaders, President Obama’s arms-length strategy on health care appears to be paying dividends, with the House and the Senate poised to take up legislation to insure nearly all Americans.

Appears to be working, that oft-criticized strategy. Perhaps all the pundits were wrong.

The bills have advanced further than many lawmakers expected. Five separate measures are now pared down to two. But the legislative progress has come at a price. In the absence of specific guidance from the White House, it has moved ahead in fits and starts. From here on, the challenges will only grow more difficult.

In fits and starts, but it has moved. Out of committees, soon onto the floors.

In the Senate, where Democrats will need support from every member of their caucus to reach a critical 60-vote threshold to avoid a potential filibuster, Mr. Obama’s hands-off strategy carries particular risks. Without clear direction from the president on the public option, the Democratic leader, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, moved ahead last week on his own, unveiling a bill that includes a government-run plan, but allows states to opt out.

Within hours, the proposal was being questioned by centrist Democrats whose concerns Mr. Obama must now address. As Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, said, “When you are seeking 60 votes, every person is a kingmaker.”

Including Senator Lieberman, who needs to have his knuckles rapped.

Last week’s back-and-forth in the Senate was emblematic of a process that has at times seemed on the brink of anarchy. Lawmakers have missed many deadlines, including the one Mr. Obama set for all five Congressional committees to wrap up work by August. (Only four did.) Even close allies of the White House sometimes questioned its approach.

But it has worked.

Mr. Emanuel also said it was no accident that “the basic bones” of the House and Senate legislation were, despite some big differences, quite similar. “While there was a cry for more presidential direction,” he said, “that direction was being provided by the president’s staff.”

The No. 3 Republican in the Senate, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who attended one session with the president, recalled that in the 1960s, when he was a Congressional aide, Democrats and Republicans worked together on civil rights. He said he saw no possibility of a bipartisan health bill. “White House officials don’t want one or don’t know how to do one,” Mr. Alexander said.

White House? How about Republicans? What they know how to do is criticize, and say no.

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