Is healthcare bipartisanship down the drain?

Both sides are angling for position on healthcare reform. But it looks like there'll be no meeting of the minds, and Democrats are likely to go it alone.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Republican leaders, from left, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, arrive for a healthcare reform meeting with President Barack Obama at the Blair House in Washington.

President Obama is still holding out for bipartisanship on healthcare reform. At least that's the rhetoric coming from the White House two days after a historic seven-hour meeting with lawmakers across the street at Blair House.

“I am eager and willing to move forward with members of both parties on healthcare if the other side is serious about coming together to resolve our differences and get this done,” Obama said in his weekly radio/Internet address Saturday morning.

But more and more, it's looking like Democrats will have to go it alone on what has become the most contentious issue in Obama's first year in the White House – at least if anything comprehensive is to result from the debate.

Obama hints at this when he adds, “...we cannot lose the opportunity to meet this challenge.” And he lists the major differences between the two sides, including insurance company accountability, tax credits for businesses and individuals, and how to handle preexisting medical conditions.

GOP won't cooperate with Obama

Sen. Tom Coburn, (R) of Oklahoma, who's a physician, gave the Republican response Saturday, and there seemed not to be any hint at bipartisan accommodation in his rhetoric.

"I'm concerned that the majority in Congress still is not listening to the American people on the subject of healthcare reform,” he said. “By an overwhelming margin, the American people are telling us to scrap the current bills, which will lead to a government takeover of healthcare, and we should start over.

“Unfortunately, even before the summit took place the majority in Congress signaled its intent to reject our offers to work together,” Coburn continued. “Instead they want to use procedural tricks and backroom deals to ram through a new bill that combines the worst aspects of the bills the Senate and House passed last year." (Monitor White House correspondent Linda Feldmann's take on the healthcare summit here.)

As the two sides maneuver for position, an attempt at “reconciliation” seems inevitable.

Sounds fair and good. But as Monitor congressional reporter Gail Russell Chaddock points out: “In the dictionary, ‘reconciliation’ means bringing together, conciliation, or fence mending. But on the floor of the US Senate, it’s pure procedural warfare.”

A way around the filibuster

In practice, it means that instead of the 60 Senate votes usually expected in order to pass major legislation, it would take just 51 – effectively bypassing the 41 Republican senators who would no longer be able to filibuster the legislative process to a halt.

Although it’s been used in the past (including when the GOP controlled Congress), Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona says the use of reconciliation to pass healthcare reform would be “cataclysmic.”

In any case, it wouldn’t be easy to pull off. Some Democrats resist the idea – especially since a clear majority of Americans oppose reconciliation, according to a recent Gallup poll.

It’s unclear how supportive Obama would be of using the controversial reconciliation process to get a bill passed. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Friday the president “will likely make an announcement next week about the next steps forward.”

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