Obama's partisan reasons for 'bipartisan' healthcare

Obama needs to woo doubting conservatives in his own party even more than he needs to win over Republicans.

Kevin Lamarque/ Reuters
President Barack Obama speaks during an Organizing for America national healthcare forum at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in Washington on Thursday.
Karin Cooper/ CBS Face the Nation/ AP
Sen. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota, talks after appearing on CBS's "Face the Nation" in Washington on Sunday.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that President Obama’s drive for a bipartisan healthcare bill is, in fact, as much about his own party as it is Republicans.

With a wide majority in the House and a filibuster-proof 60 seats in the Senate, congressional Democrats should be able to do whatever they want. On Sunday, Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York said they would do just that to ensure a government-run public healthcare option is a part of any final bill.

“Even if every Republican says that they will not be for a public option,… we will get 60 Democratic votes for it,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Yet on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday, that calculus was challenged.

"It is very clear that in the United States Senate the public option does not have the votes," said Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota. "If we have to get to 60 votes we cannot get there with the public option."

Mr. Obama has sought to cast the opponents of reform as political opportunists seeking to make healthcare reform his “Waterloo.” Yet the far greater problem remains conservatives within his own party. If he cannot sway them to vote for healthcare reform, he has virtually no chance of winning any Republican votes.

The president’s insistence on a bipartisan bill, then, is more than just a promise to play nice with the folks on the other side of the aisle. It is an attempt to woo doubting, conservative Democrats with a more palatable bill.

The alternative is reconciliation, a Senate procedure designed to circumvent filibusters on contentious bills that could reduce the deficit – allowing them to pass with a simple majority. Despite Obama's projections, Republicans – and some Democrats – would be skeptical of any effort to cast healthcare reform with a public option as an effort to reduce the deficit.

Moreover, if Democrats were to use reconciliation, the healthcare bill would need to be broken into smaller parts, each of which would have to have some deficit-cutting aspect to it – an immensely complicated prospect, and one that would have to pass the Senate's stringent rules. On top of this, any bill passed by reconciliation would have to be reauthorized after five years.

It is hardly ideal means to pass legislation – and intentionally so. But both parties have threatened to use reconciliation to overcome gridlock on controversial bills in the past, and Senator Schumer kept the door open Sunday.

“We are considering alternatives [to a bipartisan bill]…. They include looking at reconciliation.”

According to Senator Conrad’s math, however, Democrats would be using reconciliation to overcome Democratic as well as Republican opposition to a public option – not something Obama would be eager to do, no matter how great his desire for a public option.

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