As the House nears a final vote on health care and Speaker Nancy Pelosi faces the unenviable task of trying to corral the support of members who backed the anti-abortion Stupak Amendment to the original House-passed bill, much liberal ire is currently being directed at the amendment's author, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.).
Because the legislation currently being discussed does not include the amendment, Stupak has come out strongly against the compromise bill and in recent interviews has indicated that he is willing to bring down the entire package as a result.
While Stupak's hardened views on this issue were to be expected, the White House and Pelosi's failure to adequately bargain with the powerful Stupak has been one of the great failures of this end game of the reform fight.
Given Stupak's influence among the blue dogs and his pro-life colleagues, Stupak's position on any final bill was always going to be crucial. This was clear when the first House bill passed by just 220-to-215. The night that Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) won and it was obvious that health care would only be ratified by passing the Senate bill through the House or through an entirely new vehicle, Stupak should have been one of the President's first phone calls.
The health care process has been endlessly muddled by the rudderless White House. The inability to see Stupak's entrenched position and deal with him appropriately merely fits within that broader pattern. While garnering Stupak's personal vote will not assure a majority, his role in passage is unquestionable.
The fact is that as is often the case with headstrong legislators, Stupak's position on the health care issue likely goes beyond Stupak's own views on the abortion issue or even the legislation itself and can be traced to personal grievances that fall beneath the surface.
Stupak is a senior member of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee and is a long-time backer of the former chairman, Rep. John Dingell, a fellow Michiganer. Late in 2008, Dingell was toppled as chairman by liberal California Rep. Henry Waxman, who had the implicit support of Speaker Pelosi. Waxman's ouster of Dingell -- the longest-serving Member in the history of the House -- was a Capitol Hill earthquake.
The consequences of Waxman's elevation on Stupak were also profound. Besides their different backgrounds and stances, because Stupak was a staunch Dingell supporter, his power on the Committee was largely phased out. Specifically, the Oversight and Investigations subcommittee Stupak chairs and which had been so active and productive under Dingell was declawed and neutered by Waxman and the House leadership.
While he would never say so, Stupak's treatment on the Energy and Commerce Committee by Waxman and by extension, Pelosi, likely gnaws at him and colors many of his disagreements with the Democratic leadership on key issues.
Yet, while this ill feeling is well-known on the Hill, it has been virtually ignored by the White House. In attempting to win Stupak's support for any final bill, the White House and House leadership should have offered to re-empower Stupak's subcommittee and give him a freer hand to conduct more robust oversight and hearings into subjects of his choosing. Instead, Stupak's jurisdiction has been mostly ignored.
The White House's failure to engage Stupak on this can likely be traced to two factors. First, obviously, is Pelosi's backing of Waxman and a more liberal course for his committee.
Second, is that the White House head of legislative affairs is Phil Schiliro, Waxman's long-time chief of staff, and one of the architects of his defeat of Dingell. Schiliro might be well-positioned to understand the underlying resentments shaping Stupak's viewpoint, but he is also unlikely to want to engage those feelings and help Stupak given his loyalty to Waxman.
Ironically, Schiliro's presence probably played a big role in the White House pushing and the House passing the ill-fated cap-and-trade bill which had no chance in the Senate and bogged down the House for valuable months it could have spent hammering out health care.
Of course, offering to give Stupak back his old power base is no guarantee of obtaining his support; publicly, Members like to deny that their votes are based on quid pro quo's.
But by talking to Stupak about these power politics, some headway could have been made and perhaps a deal could have been cut to get his support for the final reform package. Instead, as evident by his recent interview, Stupak is strongly against the final compromise being bandied about, and his opposition could doom the final bill.
This impasse could have been avoided if the White House had exercised a bit more political savvy.
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