Paralysis on the Left and in Congress: Health Reform, Strong Jobs Bill In Peril

Art Levine

Congressional Democrats are sending strong signals that they want to see more leadership from the President on health care reform.

But progressive groups, Democrats and unions also haven’t coalesced behind a clear strategy either to move now-stalled health care reform forward, or to convince cowed Senate Democrats to take on the sort of large-scale jobs creation programs needed for America’s 27 million jobless and underemployed.

The upshot of all this, worries one knowledgeable activist: People are bummed out about health care, and it’s hard to get them revved up about it [again]. But if we don’t win on health care, there isn’t anything else going to be done on the progressive agenda this year.”

And as Politico reported:

President Barack Obama has left Democrats as confused as ever about how the White House plans to deliver a health care reform bill this year, after two weeks of inconsistent statements, negligible hands-on involvement and a sudden shift to a jobs-first message.

Democrats on Capitol Hill and beyond say they have no clear understanding of the White House strategy – or even whether there is one – and are growing impatient with Obama’s reluctance to guide them toward a legislative solution.

At a White House meeting Thursday with Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressed frustration with the slow pace of the negotiations and the president’s decision not to weigh in publicly on a path forward, according to a Democratic source familiar with the meeting.

Among some – but hardly all - liberal commentators and proponents, such as Paul Krugman of the New York Times and even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, there is a clear-cut strategy at hand. That involves the House passing the Senate bill as written while Democrats in both houses work out a firm budget reconciliation agreement needing only 51 votes that could fix some of the major, politically feasible differences between both the House and Senate, including finalizing the compromise over the tax on so-called Cadillac plans.” But now, in the wake of Democrats’ shell-shock over Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown’s victory, there’s a reluctance by Democrats to move forward in a way that would leave them open to GOP charges of sneaky back-room deals or flouting the supposed will of the people.

Labor has a related, but different approach to breaking the impasse over health reform, as outlined in a new op-ed piece by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in Roll Call Tuesday, asking that the Senate act first to improve its bill though a reconciliation add-on.

He contends:

It’s critical that Congress act swiftly on legislation to save and create jobs — but that doesn’t mean Members can turn down the heat on health care reform. We learned last week that health care spending consumed a record 17.3 percent of the U.S. economy last year. Tens of millions of Americans have no insurance, others are denied coverage every day, and insurance companies keep pushing premiums up beyond the ability of average people to pay.

Health care reform can’t wait. And it doesn’t have to.

A Senate majority can fix the Senate’s flawed health care bill and get it to the House for final passage. With the Republican party of no” refusing to collaborate and throwing every obstacle it can into the path of health care reform, this can only happen through reconciliation.

Opponents of health care reform are trying to cast the reconciliation process as some exotic technique to ram through legislation. But in the face of unmovable political gridlock, reconciliation is the right way to get this country’s working people the reform they’re demanding — the reform they need…

It’s time for the Senate to agree to a better bill and pass it through reconciliation.

It’s time for the House to pass the bill and send it to President Barack Obama to sign into law. As we saw in Massachusetts just last month, America’s working people are fed up with excuses, and they are demanding results.

Members of Congress who let them down will face their own peril come Election Day. And as our family members and neighbors continue to suffer at the hands of insurance companies, none of us can afford to let this opportunity for real reform pass us by.

In contrast, many of the most influential voices among the most hard-core progressive wing of the Democratic Party, the netroots” activists, are urging Democrats to reject the Senate legislation altogether, although some no doubt would welcome efforts to strengthen it with the long-shot of a public option as part of reconciliation. As Firedoglake’s Kill the Senate Bill” action page puts it, The Senate health care bill is an ungodly mess of errors, loopholes, and massive giveaways. When the American people find out what’s actually in this bill, they will revolt,” citing everything from taxes on middle-class health plans to the absence of a public option.

Other progressives, though, while admitting that it falls short of original goals, say it extends protections against insurance abuses and offers health insurance to millions of uninsured people. It sucks,” says one activist, but we’ve got to pass it.”

Yet even this watered-down reform may not pass. Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson, for one, has blamed the absence of a strong left movement pushing Obama and Congress to pass a truly progressive agenda:

In America, major liberal reforms require not just liberal governments, but autonomous, vibrant mass movements, usually led by activists who stand at or beyond liberalism’s left fringe. No such movements were around during Carter and Clinton’s presidencies.

For his part, Obama won election with something new under the political sun: a list of 13 million people who had supported his campaign. But he has consistently declined to activate his activists to help him win legislative battles by pressuring, for instance, those Democratic members of Congress who have weakened or blocked his major bills.

To be sure, loosing the activists would have brought problems of its own: Unlike Roosevelt or Johnson, who benefited from autonomous movements, Obama would be answerable for every loopy tactic his followers employed. But in the absence of both a free-standing movement and a legion of loyalists, Congress isn’t feeling much pressure from the left to move Obama’s agenda.

That leaves fractious Congressional Democrats in charge of reform. And as moderate columnist E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post points out:

Despite the president’s recent calls for bipartisan consultation, the task of finishing the kitchen” will ultimately fall to congressional Democrats. The House needs to pass the Senate bill, and both chambers need to approve amendments to it. At least two amendments are essential to getting the bill through the House. They involve reducing the burden of the tax on Cadillac” health-care plans, which is wildly unpopular with House members and voters; and getting rid of the special Medicaid subsidy deal for Nebraska, which just about everyone hates. Even Nebraska’s Ben Nelson, the senator for whom that deal was put together, wants it out.

The House and Senate disagree over the order in which these things should be done, but they can resolve this. The real problem is that some Senate Democratic moderates are petrified that Republicans will make terrible trouble if the amendments are passed through the reconciliation process,” which is fancy congressional talk for majority rule. Reconciliation bills require a simple majority of the Senate, not the 60 votes that, wrongly, have come to be necessary to get any bill through.

But if Democrats are that intimidated by Republicans, they should just give up their majority. And this fear is politically shortsighted. Right now, every Democrat in the Senate has to defend a vote for the health-care bill anyway, with nothing to show for it – and this includes defending the Nebraska deal.

By contrast, voting for amendments to the original Senate bill would be a sign that Democrats heard the message from Massachusetts. Brown won in part because the Nebraska buy-off became a symbol of unseemly legislative logrolling. And many voters would welcome a reduction in a tax on health plans.

And without a victory and the resulting momentum on health care reform, a strong jobs bill remains less likely – but the the White House and Senate Democrats are apparently eager to pursue bipartisanship” on both fronts, weakening the chances for any meaningful bills emerging.

Indeed, Obama has declared how he wanted to move first on the scaled-down, low-impact jobs program now being considered by the Senate, then return again to health care.

So his proposed bipartisan meeting on health care could either sucker-punch Republicans like his Q-and-A with House Republicans , making clear their obstructionism, or slow down health reform even further. The most hopeful view came from the knowledgeable Ezra Klein of The Washington Post:

Super Bowl Sunday isn’t generally a hot day for health-care news. But if the Saints can be in the Super Bowl, then anything can happen. And so it did, with Barack Obama sitting down for an interview with Katie Couric to announce that he’ll be inviting the Republican and Democratic leadership to a summit to sit down and work out the differences between their health-care plans. Oh, and C-SPAN is invited.

In conversations today, the White House was quick to emphasize a couple of points. First, they’re not starting over. Legislation has already passed the House of Representatives and the United States Senate. That’s not to be taken lightly, and the White House isn’t taking it lightly. The President has made it clear that he’s adamant about passing comprehensive reform similar to the bills passed by the House and the Senate,” one official said.

But before that legislation gets to the president’s desk, modifications are needed to bring the House and Senate bills into closer alignment, and that means there’s time to hear more ideas. Or so goes the story.

I’d expect to see some concessions made to Republicans at the summit. I’d also expect the president to emphasize how many of their ideas are already incorporated into the legislation. But this isn’t about the ideas. The White House isn’t holding a study session because they’re worried they don’t have the right answers for the final test.

This is, first and foremost, about defusing the lines of attack that have scared the hell out of Democratic legislators. If you talk to people on the Hill, there’s relatively little concern about the substance of the likely compromise, but there’s enormous anxiety over the public’s belief that the bill is thick with noxious deals, which is fed by the idea that the process has been hidden from the American people. After all, people reason, if the bill was so good, why wouldn’t they let C-SPAN into the negotiations? The White House hopes this summit will be a clean break with that narrative.

Second, and more importantly, this creates a next step for health-care reform. The House and the Senate have not been able to agree on a path forward. The president, of course, cannot hold a vote for them. But by setting this summit, he’s bought them a few weeks to figure out how to hold a vote themselves. That won’t be easy, but it’ll be easier with the White House summit giving some structure and narrative to an effort that had collapsed into murky chaos.

Still, the president’s call over the weekend for a televised bipartisan summit on health care worries some liberals that it could lead to delay – or, they speculate hopefully, it could be a gambit that lays the groundwork for finally moving forward. As Greg Sargent of The Plum Line blog explained:

But then Obama continued that after the recess, he would hold a second large meeting” of Republicans and Democrats” to see if there’s a way to find common ground on health care.

At this second meeting, Obama said, the White House, Dems, and Republicans would determine whether there was a bipartisan way forward on specific legislation. He said he wanted to look at the Republican ideas that are out there” on lowering costs and insuring the 30 million uninsured.

If we can go step by step through a series of these issues,” Obama said, then procedurally there’s no reason why we can’t do it a lot faster than we did last year.”

A lot to chew on here. Republicans will spin this as proof that Obama has shelved reform, wants to start again, and will only pursue a bill that GOPers sign onto. Liberals will be dismayed at the apparent suggestion that Obama seems to actually be saying that such common ground could form the basis of anything approaching real reform – and that he’s leaving open the possiblity of doing compromise” legislation with Republicans.

It’s possible, though, that this is all about laying the groundwork for pursuing a Dem-only reconciliation solution later. Such an effort, should it happen, will inevitably be portrayed as yet another partisan back-room effort to ram reform through. So perhaps the White House hopes a very public gesture of bipartisanship and transparency now will undercut those attacks and allow Dems to argue that they had no choice but to move forward alone.


Update: Maybe the game plan is to give skittish Congressional Dems cover to support a Dem-only reconciliation (i.e., back-room” and partisan”) approach later.

Update: Nancy Pelosi, who’s been much more realistic throughout this process than the White House or the Senate about the likelihood of bipartisan cooperation ever happening, endorses this in a statement.”

But despite hopes from some of the most activist progressives in the Democratic Party, such as those with the Howard Dean-founded Democracy for America, that the inability to get 60 votes would lead to a strong push for meaningful reform for Democrats, that scenario doesn’t seem to be playing out. While there was once at least 51 votes for a public option in the Senate, now it’s increasingly clear that it won’t be easy to get a majority of Senators supporting that approach now, despite continued strong public support for that measure.

Now there’s a Democratic stalemate over what to do next, with House Democrats expecting the Senate to improve its bill, and the Senate expecting the House to agree to the Senate version – yet another recipe for gridlock leading to calls for more Presidential leadership.

As Steve Benen of The Washington Monthly reported last week about the impasse:

So, what’s the problem? Pelosi also suggested the House won’t do anything on health care reform until the Senate acts first to improve the legislation it passed in December.

Our members will not support the Senate bill. Take that as a fact. […]

Don’t even ask us to consider passing the Senate bill until the other legislation has passed both houses so that we’re sure that it has happened, and that we know that what we would be voting for would be as effected by a reconciliation bill or whatever parliamentary initiative they have at their disposal.”

Asked if she expects the Senate to go first, Pelosi said, Yes.” After a lengthy pause, she added, Yes.”

When a reporter noted that it may not be procedurally possible for the Senate to amend legislation that hasn’t become law yet, Pelosi rejected the premise and said the Senate could find a way. And it must, according to her argument, because the House refuses to move forward as things stand.

What this tells us, then, is that the Senate expects the House to pass health care reform, and then both chambers will approve improvements. The House expects the Senate to pass improvements first, and won’t move on health care until that happens. This is a recipe for failure – both chambers waiting for the other to do something, making it far more likely that nothing happens….

The House and Senate are at odds, they don’t seem to be getting anywhere, and without some presidential intervention, a way forward will likely never materialize.

And what are progressives doing to promote a practical way forward out of this mess? Trumka’s clear new call for Senate revisions could help spur added pressure on the Senate. But with the Senate so resistant to change and gun-shy after Brown’s victory, while the Senate bill remains so unpopular among liberals in the House, it’s hard to imagine that there’s a lot of progressive pressure underway to take the Krugman-like just sign it already” approach with the House.

Nor is there much evidence that the Senators will bow to progressive pressure to improve their bill. Without strong presidential leadership and intense grass-roots activism, the House and Senate could play chicken” with each other for the next few months until health care reform itself falls off a cliff and crashes.

What about jobs?

Now difficult stalemates on jobs creation are looming as well. But even the President’s new top priority, jobs legislation, is essentially stalled, with Republicans agreeing, at best, only to tax cuts and a possible extension of unemployment insurance.

The current Democratic legislative approach, Hill observers say, is to divide job creation into a few smaller bills, but none, in total, will have the scope that progressive economists at the Economic Policy Institute and others say is needed to revive the economy and bring back the millions of lost jobs. The $400 billion EPI proposal would create 4.5 million jobs in its first year, but the Senate is only considering an $80 billion bill, at best, even smaller than the House’s $154 billion version.

Both the Obama administration and Senate liberals are falling down in responding to the magnitude of the crisis, according to Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, and other progressive critics. The first $700 billion stimulus was way too small,” he says, and this time there’s tiny little tax breaks for small businesses and other so-called help for the middle class,” citing such people-pleasers as tax credits for child care and college tuition.

The Senate seems to be stuck in a very low level of willingness to spend and invest in job creation,” Hickey points out, and there’s an assumption that the economy is on the mend – an assumption most unemployed Americans don’t share.”

Equally troubling, Hickey and others note, the usual liberal champions in the Senate of reform and pro-worker policies haven’t stood up and called for large-scale programs. I don’t see much leadership,” he says.

At the same time, despite a newly-formed coalition to push for strong jobs measures, Jobs for America Now!, the progressive and labor groups that make up the coalition don’t seem to have put the full force of their organizing strength, membership and financial resources behind the effort.

Not much is happening,” one progressive advocate admits. There’s no active organizing on the ground.” Most of these groups’ work appears to be focusing primarily on still seeking to pass health care. That’s a reasonable strategic decision, but that still leaves pushing for jobs creation a relatively lower priority, also tempered by the pragmatic understanding that today’s Senate isn’t likely to accept any $400 billion packages.

Alan Charney, the program director of USAction, and the coalition’s interim director, cites as a key obstacle the lack of leadership in the Senate for a more robust bill. There’s no question that there is no core of Senators who are pushing for a big, bold program,” he says. The Senate leadership hasn’t said exactly what they’re are doing, how many jobs the are going to create and haven’t put a price on the bill,” he also observes, so the vagueness of the current ideas being floated also makes it harder for progressive groups to push for a specific legislative solution, especially when no Senator has introduced wide-ranging legislation along the ambitious lines liberals favor.

Of course, most of the major groups are sending out email alerts to their members, urging them to contact their Senators to take strong action on jobs. But that isn’t the same as a full-fledged grass-roots organizing effort with on-the-ground field organizers and massive advertising, but a start comes with national phone-ins and emailing expected this week to promote extending unemployment benefits and COBRA for the long-term unemployed.

Such essential measures are needed for millions of families. Nevertheless, even though Democrats favor other measures like infrastructure spending to promote jobs, there’s very little being done in the Senate on behalf of state and local governments whose short-term aid is running out. They are slated, without new aid, to start laying off hundreds of thousands of more workers and cutting back services. But the anti-government ideology of conservatives dominate the Senate, and so there’s little interest in helping out what the GOP caricatures as lazy, pointy-headed bureaucrats, overlooking all the teachers, cops and emergency first-responders who will be laid off.

The economy is in a terrible hole, and it’s in danger sitting in that hole for a long period of time,” Hickey points out. The Obama people and even the Democrats seem to be assuming that the economy will get better by itself,” despite continuing high levels of unemployment. It’s especially devastating to a new generation of workers who find themselves jobless or stuck in low-paying, dead end jobs. They’re losing a decade that they’re not becoming workers,” he says. We’re dooming the economy to permanent, high levels of unemployment.”

So it should be a much higher priority for progressives and Senate Democrats to take actions that really work, but so far, the smart strategic thinking, massive advertising campaigns and aggressive grass-roots lobbying needed by liberals to prod Congress to really respond to a crisis-wracked economy – and help reverse a potential catastrophe for Democrats – haven’t yet materialized in a clear, obvious way.

This post has been updated with additional material.

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Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate​.com, Salon​.com and numerous other publications.
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