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Reconciliation vs. Filibuster -- Which Party Will Blink on Health Care?

04/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's come down to a contest not of skill but of will, especially for congressional Democrats. Can a GOP that misuses the filibuster scores of times scare Dems away from using reconciliation once?

In any close contest, political or athletic, there comes a moment when one competitor shows a will to win. It's Drew Brees not wanting to let New Orleans down or Bode Miller coming from 6th to first in the Vancouver Super G Combined when he knew that he had to ski faster than planned to win Gold.

This week, health care has come to a moment when it too is a test of wills. And not just Obama's. His courtly bipartisanship is apparently surrendering to his Chicagoan desire to win -- hence tomorrow's televised summit. Presumably, he's arrived at his Bode Miller moment, either to craft a bipartisan bill that gets 60 votes in the Senate (yeah right) or push his on-line version through the House and the Senate by an up-or-down Reconciliation vote.

The fight now is beyond content -- where the case has been made and re-made about cost curves, pre-existing conditions, employer mandates. It's about politics. That's what it was in 1994 when, as Majority Leader Dole later admitted to President Clinton, the GOP had to kill the bill not because it wouldn't work but because it might, which would relegate Republicans to minority status for elections to come. In a reprise, the McConnell-Boehner team has a clear and so far successful strategy -- make health care Obama's "Waterloo," in Sen. DeMint's candid phrase.

In a Gresham's law of politics, bad tactics are driving out good ones, giving Democrats only two choices -- either be good losers or tough winners.

Starting last summer, unblinking Republicans were able to "control the narrative" and shift public sentiment against reform with their incessant, demagogic attacks on "socialism," "death panels," a "job-killing 2000 page bill." Can Democrats now rise to the occasion and trash talk back? Why do we always hear the Republicans on TV attacking Obamacare but not Hill Democrats with the same passion and decibels? Was Robert Frost right when he joked that "a liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel"?

I know and admire Dick Durbin, Pat Leahy and Ron Wyden, for example, but they really have to abandon sweet reason this month and smack back. Who other than Rep. Alan Grayson -- and Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow, Bill Maher -- can repeat the simple truth that if the GOP kills the bill they'll also be killing thousands of Americans who won't get the health care they need...that "polls" showing the bill slipping are not nearly as important as a poll called an election in November, 2008 that by substantial majorities elected Democrats to the Executive Branch, Senate and House promising to fix health care...and that a party misusing the filibuster to an unprecedented extent has no standing to complain about a party using reconciliation once.

We are, finally, seeing some Democrats not just answering but attacking. Leader Reid whacked the GOP for using reconciliation to enact much of Reagan's and W's programs but now whining about the process when Obama favors it. DNC chair Tom Kaine observed that Republicans "are like Dr. Kevorkian giving you health care advice." Ok, not original, but effective.

And who is going to explain to House Democrats members voting against health care reform in the last round -- like New York's Eric Massa and Mike McMahon -- that it's stupid and selfish for them to believe that they can help bury health care reform and probably Democratic prospects this Fall, yet expect that somehow they'll miraculously survive in their purple districts. Where's our Ben Franklin telling these freshmen that either we hang together or we hang separately?

Of course, reconciliation will provoke more faux anger from a GOP of insiders who pretend to be outsiders -- what else is new? -- and it could fail in either chamber. It's a risk. Anyone have a better strategy now that, unexpectedly, Ted Kennedy died and Martha Coakley flopped? Better to gamble to win than allow Mitch McConnell to shoot out a tire and then blame the driver for a crash.

Republicans didn't blink when they used the filibuster to an unprecedented extent. Will Democrats this crucial week show a similar resolve on an issue that's good policy and good politics?

At stake is 2010, 2012 and a sixth of the economy. Time not to blink. Time to learn from Brees and Bode. Time to go for the Gold.