Healthcare reform 'fixes' pass, but is bipartisanship lost?

Other large social programs like Medicare and Social Security passed with strong bipartisan majorities, but healthcare reform and its package of 'fixes' lacked a single Republican vote. Republican leaders call the process used to pass healthcare reform a 'game-changer.'

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, accompanied by fellow Democratic legislators, speaks at a healthcare reform news conference Thursday in Washington.

After a late-breaking glitch over 20 words, the package of “fixes” essential to win passage of a sweeping healthcare reform bill cleared the House and Senate on Thursday, promising access to healthcare to some 31 million now-uninsured Americans.

But lawmakers are just beginning to assess the cost of moving a vast new social entitlement without a single Republican vote – a first for the US Congress. Both Social Security and Medicare cleared Congress with big, bipartisan majorities.

Democrats say Americans will soon forget the go-it-alone process used to move this historic legislation as they come to know its benefits.

“Last year, a supermajority in the United States Senate passed the most crucial social, economic, and moral change in several generations. Just a couple of days ago, the president signed that into law. And today we made that law even better,” said Senate majority leader Harry Reid at a briefing after the Senate vote.

Senate Democrats lost their 60-vote supermajority with the Feb. 4 swearing in of Sen. Scott Brown (R) of Massachusetts, who campaigned to be the 41st senator to defeat healthcare reform. Under regular order, Democrats would have had to come back to the Senate with a compromise version of healthcare reform acceptable to both the House and Senate. Instead, House Democrats agreed to pass the Senate’s version of healthcare reform with no changes, then pass “fixes” in a separate bill, using complex budget “reconciliation” procedures requiring only a majority vote.

Republicans charge that that two-step process was unfair to the public and to the minority and has damaged the Senate. “The process was sleazy and it disgusted most Americans," says Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina. "Reconciliation was used in a way to nullify the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts. It turned the Senate upside down.”

“This bill and the process is a game-changer for the way the minority will operate in perpetuity in the Senate,” he added. “The president has lost some moral authority to lead this country in the future and to make hard decisions.”

Coming from other Republicans, that charge might be seen as partisan boilerplate. But Senator Graham has been one of the rare Republicans to cross party lines to work with President Obama and Democrats on issues ranging from immigration and climate change to US military commissions and treatment of detained terrorism suspects.

When then-majority Republicans tried to change the rules of the Senate to ease passage of President Bush’s judicial nominations in 2005, Graham joined the bipartisan “Gang of 14” to work out a compromise to preserve minority rights. He says the process used to pass healthcare reform was worse than the changes contemplated by then-majority Republicans over judicial nominations. “The minority has played an important role in our democracy,” he says.

Three Democrats who had voted for the Senate healthcare bill on Dec. 24, 2009 – Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska – split with party leaders over this week’s vote on fixes, which passed 56 to 43. “I vote independently," said Senator Nelson. "I told [Democratic leaders] I was not going to be part of a bloc voting a certain way.”

Commenting on the absence of Republican votes on healthcare reform, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D) of Rhode Island says: “It has the superficial appearance of being a discouraging thing and not reflecting well on the bill. But the unfortunate fact is that Senate Republicans early on adopted a clear plan and now-admitted strategy that they were going to deny Republican support to anything and everything to wound and diminish America’s new president.”

“I hope this week’s passage of healthcare reform represents a turning point in that strategy,” he adds.

On the House side, parties traded shots over who is responsible for the ugly tone on the House floor and threats to members of Congress who voted for healthcare reform. House leaders report that since voting for healthcare reform, some 10 Democrats have been threatened or had offices vandalized.

“I know many Americans are angry over this healthcare bill and angry at Democrats here in Washington for not listening. But as I've said before, violence and threats are unacceptable,” said House Republican leader John Boehner in a briefing on Thursday. “We need to take that anger and channel it into what I would describe as positive change."

Responding to criticism in her own caucus that Republicans have fired up angry crowds and raised the threat level, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said: "I don't subscribe to the fact that these acts of violence sprang from any words of my colleagues. But I do think that this Congress and this House of Representatives is a classroom, and that it's inappropriate for members of Congress to stand up and cheer when these sentiments are expressed in the gallery. That's different from saying that it provoked it.”

She added: “But I think we have to manage this issue very carefully, recognizing we are a democracy."

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