Showing some backbone on health reform: Hat's off to the New York Times

05/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Harold Pollack Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration, University of Chicago

"A liberal," Robert Frost famously said, "is someone who refuses to take his own side in an argument." During the Bush years, many of us internalized that stereotype. Many progressives hated Karl Rove with a passion that, at least partly, seemed to arise out of fear that he was a bit more clever and ruthless than we are at the political game. The New York Times editorial page (and for that matter its cousin in Washington) exemplifies the dilemma. High-mindedly fastidious about political process, my favorite paper's editorial page is admirably principled, but is rarely a useful locale to find hard-knuckled tactical advice.

They're getting tougher. Senate Republicans are maintaining annoying party discipline in an effort to thwart or limit healthcare reform. These reforms are supported by large majorities of the American people, a dominant House majority, and a clear majority in the United States Senate. Democrats remain one or two votes shy of a filibuster-proof majority. The situation is especially galling when you consider that one of these votes rightfully belongs to Democrats. Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman stands virtually no chance of winning the election he rightfully lost way back in November. It's an open secret that he is basically running out the clock to deny Democrats this key Senate vote.

The Obama administration and various other Democrats are dancing around the possibility of using an arcane but important device known as the reconciliation process to force an up-down vote. Republicans are predictably crying foul-- and are equally predictable in their collective amnesia about how they used the identical maneuver to pass President Bush's deep tax cuts for the wealthy.

Under Senate rules, the reconciliation process is nominally intended for budget measures, not for other substantive legislation. When the Clinton health reform was on life support, Senator Robert Byrd hammered a big nail in the coffin by announcing that he would oppose passing the bill through this process. That great attempt to address our nation's healthcare crisis never received the courtesy of an actual vote.

There are many reasons to hope that health reform passes without resorting to this rather rinky-dink process. There is no legitimate reason for Democrats to throw away this bargaining chip right now. As the Times editors put things,

There are reasons to be wary about resorting to the expedited process, known as budget reconciliation. But it is a weapon that the Democrats would be foolish to give up without evidence that Republicans will truly cooperate in fashioning meaningful reform. Not one Republican in the House or the Senate voted for the budget resolutions, and only three supported the stimulus bill....

Republicans are also complaining that reconciliation limits the hours of debate and the opportunity for amendments. But Congress has already been wrestling with health care reform in multiple committees, so the need for more posturing in floor debate is not apparent. There are also dire warnings that resorting to reconciliation will poison the atmosphere for bipartisanship. That may well happen, but so far most Republicans have shown little appetite for cooperation on anything.

The Times concludes,

A bipartisan agreement would be nice, but what the country needs right now is effective health care reform.

Exactly right.