Opinion

Health care summit: Will Scott Brown work for, or against, reform?

Scott Brown hasn't been invited to attend Thursday's summit. But he could still play a key role in brokering a compromise.

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Newly elected Senator Scott Brown (R) of Massachusetts hasn't been invited to attend Thursday's health care summit. But that shouldn't stop him from working toward a badly needed compromise. The course he charts over the next few months could have a profound impact on Washington.

Will he join Republicans in efforts to "break" Mr. Obama, or will he work to break gridlock in the Senate? This is not just about passing healthcare reform; it is about whether anything will get done in Congress. At a time when the country needs an effective legislature, Congress seems incapable of rising above partisan bickering, which explains why respected moderates such as Sen. Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana are leaving in frustration.

Brown can serve Massachusetts and the country by restoring the lost art of compromise. As a Republican representing a liberal state, he is uniquely positioned to foster bipartisanship by balancing the interests of his party with those of his constituents. If he chooses mere obstructionism, he will have a lot of explaining to do when he faces voters in 2012. 

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Moreover, he is the successor to Sen. Ted Kennedy, a man beloved by his constituents. Brown may feel some pressure to pick up Kennedy's fallen standard and say to the nation, "Let's solve our problems." Kennedy was a staunch liberal, but he was known for his willingness to work with his conservative colleagues to advance important legislation.

Though Brown is the Senate's most junior member, now is the time for him to show leadership. As a state senator, he voted for an ambitious law that greatly expanded health coverage. As a US senator, he can draw on lessons from that bipartisan effort to help Congress finish the job and move on to other priorities.

Brown should urge both parties to put hyperbole aside and have an honest and conclusive debate about healthcare reform. He should point out that, although cooperation on the issue has not been ideal, there has been bipartisan collaboration, especially in the Senate, where the "Gang of Six" took a lead role.

He should also press his fellow Republicans to collaborate with Democrats in bridging the final differences over reform. GOP Sens. Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Judd Gregg have proven willing to compromise and could be instrumental in such efforts.

Most important, Brown should make it clear that he will vote to break a filibuster. Since he campaigned as the 41st vote against healthcare reform, it will not surprise anyone if he votes against the final bill. However, allowing an up-or-down vote is precisely the kind of middle ground that he needs to occupy to win another term.

Moreover, voting for cloture would earn him goodwill on the other side of the aisle, making Democrats far more willing to cooperate with him on issues – such as deficit reduction – that he deems important. Earlier this week, he demonstrated centrist tendencies by voting to end debate on a jobs bill, which angered conservatives and impressed Democrats; he should do the same on healthcare.   

This Congress was elected with a strong mandate to pass healthcare reform. If Brown impedes passage of Kennedy's signature issue and blocks other important legislation, I suspect that he will be remembered as a two-year senator whose strongest qualification was being in the right place at the right time.

In the end, everyone is motivated by self interest, as Sen. Arlen Specter (D) of Pennsylvania demonstrated by switching parties last year. To keep his seat, Brown knows that he cannot go too far right.

If Brown helps broker a compromise healthcare bill that becomes law and then carries that leadership and spirit of cooperation into other issue areas, he may be seen as a worthy successor to the Senate Lion. If this proves too much to ask, political expediency may force him to at least refrain from obstructionism.

Timothy Ridout is studying for a master's degree in law and diplomacy at Tufts University's Fletcher School.

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