- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Lyndon Johnson must have been rolling in his grave at the sight of President Obama holding a meeting with key lawmakers on nationwide television to break the stalemate on his health care reform bill.

No one was a better practitioner of the art of arm-twisting, deal-cutting and horse-trading behind closed doors than LBJ. The former president and legendary Senate majority leader, who enacted Medicare and a slew of Great Society anti-poverty legislation (that failed to alleviate poverty), would have had some salty, expletive-filled things to say about Mr. Obama’s TV summit being a waste of time. Thankfully, that’s what it turned out to be.

Effective, hands-on deal-making is something Mr. Obama has never done, even during his brief, book-promoting time in the Senate, when he showed no aptitude for legislative leadership.

Did he really think throwing political jabs at Republican leaders on TV would win support for his massive $1 trillion health care overhaul?

“I don’t need a poll to know that most of Republican voters are opposed to this bill,” he said at one point in the discussion. But polls show his health care plan is at death’s door because it is opposed by independents, too. Is he aware of this?

Of course, Democratic leaders never expected anything to come from the summit. They already were scheming to use the Senate’s arcane reconciliation rules to ram their bill through Congress despite polls showing as many as 60 percent of Americans oppose its enactment.

Shortly before the summit, Democratic Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, one of the architects of the original Senate bill, said, “We’ll have that meeting … but far more important, after that meeting, you can either join us or get out of the way.” So much for bipartisan compromise.

The nightly network news shows, in their shallow, shorthand way, have reduced the reconciliation process to a simple up or down majority vote in the Senate instead of the 60-vote supermajority needed to break a Republican filibuster.

But the process is far more complicated, time-consuming and disjointed than that, and it is fraught with political peril for many vulnerable Democratic incumbents who face strong Republican challengers in November.

The reconciliation rules, which are used primarily to deal with budget and deficit-cutting proposals, were not meant for complicated policymaking that can wreak havoc with America’s private health care system.

There are time limits, but senators can offer an unlimited number of amendments, too, that many Democrats may not want on their voting records in a tough election year. It is a process that can drag on for weeks, while opposition to Obamacare grows along with demands that Congress turn its attention to the economy and jobs.

“The reconciliation process will turn health care legislation into Swiss cheese, making a bad bill even worse,” predicts health care analyst Grace-Marie Turner, president of the conservative Galen Institute.

But the House will have to act first before the Senate reconciliation process can begin, and that’s where Democrats face some big obstacles.

Under the plan, House Democrats would have to give final approval to the bill Senate Democrats passed on Christmas Eve and send it to Mr. Obama for his signature. The original House bill, rejected by the Senate, squeaked through on its own, and many House Democrats think the Senate version is weak and impractical.

If House Democrats pass the Senate bill, they then will be asked to vote on a second, follow-up bill fixing what they do not like in the Senate’s package. That bill would then be debated under the Senate reconciliation rules, requiring just a 51-vote majority.

But many House Democrats are very uncomfortable about giving final approval to the Senate’s health care version, which does not contain the new public option they had demanded be included. And they are leery of the Senate’s promise to pass their follow-on “fix-it” bill.

“The trust of House members … in the Senate delivering on anything is at an historic low,” Democratic Rep. Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon told The Washington Post last week. “And the House taking major action that is dependent on a future action of the Senate, I think that’s very, very difficult.”

Mind you, all of this is expected to take place in the middle of a brutal midterm election year when the political landscape has turned strongly against the Democrats. As of this writing, the nation’s foremost election handicappers are forecasting Republican gains of between 20 and 30 seats in the House and half a dozen or more seats in the Senate. Some now think that a Republican takeover in the House is not out of the question.

In short, reconciliation poses a fiendishly difficult obstacle course for the Democrats’ hugely unpopular government health care plan that threatens to flatten their ruling majority in November. And the White House seems to be saying it is OK with that if Mr. Obama can win the centerpiece of his presidential agenda.

Donald Lambro is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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