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The End of Bipartisanship?

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Democrats are increasingly annoyed with Max Baucus. It's not just that he seems more interested in negotiating with Republicans than with his own party. It's that his process isn't working. People forget this, but months ago, the plan was for the Senate Finance Committee to drop its bill first, or at least at the same time as the Senate Health Committee. But certainly before the three committees in the House. Finance, after all, had been holding hearings for over a year. It had done the prep work. The members were familiar with the issues. Talks were ongoing. Baucus and ranking Republican Chuck Grassley were working closely together. The House hadn't done a thing.

Now, of course, the House could probably pass its bill within a matter of days, if Nancy Pelosi so chose. (She won't, not unless Senate gets its act together.*) But this isn't, as some are suggesting, because Baucus is a schmuck. It's because the structure of the legislative process is more important than the individuals within it. The House has majority rule and an internal structure that lends itself to party discipline. The Senate has the filibuster. And beyond the Senate having the filibuster, Baucus wants a bipartisan bill out of his committee.

It is no surprise that the chamber with majority rule and party discipline is outpacing the chamber with anti-majoritarian rules and a bipartisan bent. We're seeing how difficult it is to build bipartisan legislation when the minority believes it can kill the bill. You couldn't possibly have begun this process with more sincere bipartisan intent than Max Baucus, nor with a more productive cross-aisle working relationship than he enjoys with Chuck Grassley. But that hasn't left him with a bipartisan bill and Republican support. So far, it's given him no bill and time for Republican opposition to harden. One of the meta stories of this whole process was that the Senate Finance Committee was supposed to prove that bipartisanship could still work to pass major legislation. Instead, it's proving that it can't.

* Even if Nancy Pelosi could pass her bill before the recess, it's unlikely she will unless the Senate looks like it will do the same. The reason is she doesn't want to ask her members to take a hard vote, then watch Republicans hammer the unpopular provisions during August, and return only to have the Senate Democrats strip those provisions from their bill and leave House Democrats out on their own.
Photo credit: Melina Mara -- The Washington Post Photo.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 24, 2009; 9:48 AM ET
Categories:  Health Reform  
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Next: Kirsten Gillibrand and the Power of Primaries


The second people on the right started calling it Obamacare bipartisanship died. There are only two models for big legislation. Either they are one party affairs, the party takes all the credit and all the blame. Or one parties goals are subvert so no one/everyone gets credit. The bill passes with huge margins

Obama and the Democrats fully own this now. A handful of GOP senator votes will not change that. At this point it is just bad politics for any GOP senators to vote for it.

Posted by: JonWa | July 24, 2009 10:07 AM | Report abuse

Max Baucus is still a schmuck, regardless of the legislative process at play.

Posted by: mathieug | July 24, 2009 10:09 AM | Report abuse

With $1.80 and bipartisanship in Congress, you can get a Starbucks Vente coffee. With the same money and nothing else, you still get the coffee.

Making bipartisanship a goal/objective is like having Senate filibusters require 2/3 instead of 3/5ths to end them. More obstruction. Less progress. Useless process.

I'm tuning out. We may get a bill for Obama to sign, but we won't get reform. The likely result of the emphasis on cost control is a reduction in Medicare/Medicaid benefits and a few other goodies that are toothless.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | July 24, 2009 10:12 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps your Post colleauge David Broder will see this and look up some of the literature on how institutional structure affects outcomes. Or maybe not.

Posted by: Castorp1 | July 24, 2009 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Also, Ezra, it would be very useful to us if you took some time to do a post arguing against some of the talking points being unleashed in letters, opeds, and radio talk shows around the country. THe biggest ones I have heard so far are that 1/3 of the 47 million uninsured are illegal immigrants (implying that they don't matter, and for some people that will be true) and 1/3 are young people who choose not to insure themselves. Now I know from census data that neither one are true. But do you know where this is coming from?

Posted by: Castorp1 | July 24, 2009 10:27 AM | Report abuse

"The Senate has the filibuster. And beyond the Senate having the filibuster, Baucus wants a bipartisan bill out of his committee."

Yes, yes, the filibuster. As Obsidian Wings noted though, "It's one thing to vote against something, and quite another to vote against the proposition that a majority should be able to determine whether or not it passes in the Senate."

Baucus could get a bill out of committee so then we can move on to the next stage of persuading Senators to vote against the bill and for cloture. Votes against the bill and against the filibuster mean a bill gets passed. Baucus' current actions show he doesn't want a bill passed.

If Baucus were truly worried about moderate members of the Senate, he'd have a bill that Dems could negotiate around.

Posted by: Chris_ | July 24, 2009 10:31 AM | Report abuse

Ezra writes: "And beyond the Senate having the filibuster, Baucus wants a bipartisan bill out of his committee."

The question is, WHY? Why has this cult of bipartisanship developed? It can't possibly be because Baucus himself fears he'll lose his seat, is it? I had thought he was in, like, his fourth or fifth term.

It would be one thing if partisan differences in this country were settled with tanks and troops in the streets. But they're not. As vituperative as things get some times, at the end of the day we settle our differences with ballots, not bullets. So, there should be nothing unseemly or dishonorable about saying to the other side: "Sorry, but we'll have to agree to disagree, and since our side has the votes, we're going to prevail. But y'all will have a chance to get your own way in the future because of this marvelous invention called 'elections.'"

I mean, seriously, what gives? Being "partisan" need not mean being "nasty." Is Baucus afraid that perhaps the rugged individualist Montanans down at the fish and game club won't invite him on their next deer hunt if he passes a piece of progressive legislation?

Posted by: Jasper99 | July 24, 2009 10:39 AM | Report abuse

the "harry and louise" ads are seen as killing off legislative action on health reform in the clinton era

in the obama era health care reform is being fiercely battled in the senate

buacus and HIS finance committee are in the process of enabling a tactical victory to obama's health care reform opponents

bipartisanship is not a satisfactory excuse

the august deadline will have come and gone and the effect of continuing debate on the eventual outcome is to be determined

the mainstream media was more excited by obamas response to the professor gates black men police question than any thing he said on healthcare (could he have limited questions to healthcare - or at least limited his remarks to healthcare)

the "dog days of august" will be a crucial phase in the health care reform debate

Posted by: jamesoneill | July 24, 2009 10:40 AM | Report abuse

"One of the meta stories of this whole process was that the Senate Finance Committee was supposed to prove that bipartisanship could still work to pass major legislation. Instead, it's proving that it can't."

Failing to realize this is the part that makes Baucus a shmuck.

Posted by: pj_camp | July 24, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

Many politicians made the mistake of assuming there are only two parties: Democrats and Republicans.

Posted by: dummy4peace | July 24, 2009 11:35 AM | Report abuse

Let the House vote. My democrat Blue Dog will lose his seat for sure. No one has read the bill, OBama doesn't know what is in it, it is not posted on the WEb as promised, and the meetings have been in secret. So much for transparency!

Oh, yeah, the public is against it.

We also didn't know until today that in the Bill is a provision to treat homeopathic medicine the same as other medicine -- full reimbursement, no limit on visits. "Spiritual healing" is also covered. Wow, Al Sharpton is billing insurance companies under the democrat plan!

Posted by: Cornell1984 | July 24, 2009 11:45 AM | Report abuse

Senate seem to be screwed for impotense, as the nation declines and falls off the abyss - after this deep recession.

Posted by: hariknaidu | July 24, 2009 11:57 AM | Report abuse

You said it. Its all about money in Wash. and the War begins now. The only Party in Congress is Congress and it certainly doesn't represent the people. Chances for true Health care reform are bleak as long as Congress leaves the for-profit sector in the game. The can will be kicked further down the road.

Posted by: lionelroger | July 24, 2009 11:59 AM | Report abuse

Republicans have no interest in reforming health care. They are only interested in the election in the next year and a half. Forget bipartisanship as a requirement. It's something you would like to work for, but it cannot be a must-have, or you will have to give in to everything your oposition want, in which case, the Democratic party might as well change their name to Republican. Hear that, Baucus?

Posted by: pspox | July 24, 2009 12:38 PM | Report abuse

* "if Nancy Pelosio so chose."

should be if Nancy Pelosi so chose

Posted by: UnemployedCopyWriter | July 24, 2009 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Even if Nancy Pelosi could pass her bill before the recess, it's unlikely she will unless the Senate looks like it will do the same. The reason is she doesn't want to ask her members to take a hard vote, then watch Republicans hammer the unpopular provisions during August, and return only to have the Senate Democrats strip those provisions from their bill and leave House Democrats out on their own.

I understand that this is Conventional Wisdom. But it is not clear which provisions in the Tri-Committee Bill are really unpopular to start with. Polling I see suggests that large percentages of Americans want more people with health care coverage while they are more split on THEM having to pay for it. But hopes and dreams aside that they too will someday be wealthy are people really going to go the mats to keep the top 1.2% from paying higher marginal rates?

Right now people are confronted with a range of proposals that collectively make up some fictional 'Obamacare'. The passage of the Tri-Committee Bill would provide the people and also Senate Finance a specific bill with specific provisions and a specific score which they can use as a baseline. When constituents complain about paying for this with taxes on the rich the Congressman can ask where that constituent would compensate for that. By paying taxes on their own insurance? Cutting back on the percentage of people covered? Cutting back on services in the "essential benefits package"? What. That is passage of HR3200 by the whole House makes it by that fact alone the fallback position. We are a long way out from mid-terms, if there ever was a time for Democrats to take a little risk to accomplish an agenda item that is anywhere from 61 years old (Truman and the Fair Deal) to 77 years old (FDR & the New Deal). Throw the ball down-field.

Posted by: BruceWebb | July 24, 2009 1:07 PM | Report abuse

If the President's claims are anywhere near right, I suspect the process is basically ontrack. There was never any prospect that a health care bill would just sail through. The big question is whether a bill can be completed that attracts the support of a comfortable majority of the American people. If it can, I doubt there will be a big problem getting the bill through. If it can't, the issue may wind up going to the next election.

Posted by: dnjake | July 24, 2009 1:09 PM | Report abuse

Cornell1984, there is no "bill" there are "bills" plural. To which are you referring and why are you so sure that it will still be in the legislation when it is signed into law?

Posted by: MosBen | July 24, 2009 1:17 PM | Report abuse

The only reason a larger segment of the public is now against health reform is that the Republicans have been hammering 24/7 with lies and disinformation. It's the same old party we saw under GW Bush and they would give us the same result today if we let them. Their entire goal is to get their power back by any means necessary and most of us know that. Folks, every serious expert says this country needs health care reform yesterday. Call your congress critters and let them know we want them to vote for it. It's why we elected obama and some of them. We won't forget if you screw this up.

Posted by: bgormley1 | July 24, 2009 2:05 PM | Report abuse

Look, if Pelosi doesn't want to "expose" her troops by asking them to dring the "hard vote" koolaid, that tells you that she perceives that she, the prez and their fellow leftwingers are on the wrong side of this debate. If they are so convinced that they are right, then why hide? Show some guts and leadership and put it on the floor before the recess.


Posted by: JoeMcD | July 24, 2009 2:40 PM | Report abuse

Odd that when Bush wanted money to invade Iraq the Blue Dog Democrats fell all over themselves to write the check.

Or when Bush wanted to do Medicare Part D, with no funding mechanism in place, the Blue Dog Democrats were happy to say yes.

Or when Bush, later Obama, wanted trillions to bail out Wall Street the Democrats voted yes.

But when it comes time to vote to provide people with heatlh care, or to clean up the environment, or to improve our schools, Congress cries poverty.

Congress - which is firmly in control by the Democrats - lacks the competence and the courage to do its job. They are simply not up to the job of running the government.

Maybe the libertarians are right. Let's just dissolve the union, let states form regional coalitions, and go from there. From my perspective, maybe a confederation of states that included like-minded populations like Washington, Oregon, and Vermont, or the Southern states in the old Confederacy, would be far more responsive to the desires of their populations.

I'm fed up with having my health, welfare, and tax dollars decided for me by people like Harry Reid, Max Baucus, Chuck Grassley, Mitch McConnell, and James Inhofe. I didn't vote for them. They don't represent me. (They barely represent the people who did vote for them.) Doesn't make any sense that my tax dollars, or the health choices of my daughters, should be decided for me by people that I can't directly vote for.

Posted by: choskasoft | July 24, 2009 3:24 PM | Report abuse


Max Baucus has betrayed his party on more than one occasion.

He voted with the Republicans to push through Bush's Medicare Modernization ACt--which created a windfall for the for-profit insurance industry --and insurance that the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission views as a failure.
That bill also prohibits Medicare from negotiating for discounts on drugs-- corporate welfare for the drug industry.

Baucus also voted with the Republicans on Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy which have helped create the enormous deficit that we labor under now.

In negotiations over healthcare reform, Baucus has shown little interest in the public good.

He wants a "bi-partisan bill" because it will please the lobbyists who he is beholden to and, he hopes, strenghten his own hand, making him a more powerful figure in Congress.

By insisting on taxing employees' health insurance he is merely trying to appeal to youthful voters (who are less likely to have expenisve insurance) while taxing older middle-class voters who are lucky enough to work for a coporation that can afford good insurance. .

Both Obama and Peter Orszag understand that this is a very bad idea. This is not a way to contain health care spending. (WE need to keep two fact in mind: a)Obama and Orszag are both much smarter than Baucus and b) they know far more about healthcare economics.)

The udnerstand that good insurance does not drive health care inflation--no one goes in for by-pass, angioplasty or a colonoscopy because their insurance covers it. No one wants to do any of these things. The treatments that drive health care inflation are not pleasant. People sign up for these treatments only because their doctor or a hospital tells them they need them. Then, even if their insurance doesn't cover it,
the vast majority will find a way to get the reocmmended treatment, even if they have to take out a loan.
Remember, 80% of our health care dollars are spent on people who are seriously ill.

Posted by: mahar1 | July 24, 2009 3:54 PM | Report abuse

At what point was there ever any "bipartisanship" in this Democrat Congress? Reid & Pelosi ran on "bipartisanship" in 2006 and again in 2008. The truth is that they will try to destroy anyone who does not go along with their socialist agenda. "Bipartisanship" don't make me laugh.

Posted by: tharper1 | July 24, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

The American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association endorsed HR 3200. That's bipartisanship.

Posted by: CitizenJay | July 24, 2009 5:16 PM | Report abuse

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