When former President Bill Clinton tried to tackle the issue of health care reform in 1993, Republicans in the House of Representatives and the Senate worked feverishly to stall the issue to the point of death -- and reaped huge political rewards for it. Republicans won big in the 1994 midterm elections because they killed health care reform, leaving Clinton to deal with a Republican-controlled Congress for the rest of his tenure.
Fast-forward to 2009, and Republicans are employing the same strategy. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced on Thursday that his chamber would not meet President Barack Obama's August deadline in passing a reform bill. That means Congress will head into the summer recess without a bill on the table, giving reform opponents and special-interest groups a month to do everything in their power to kill whatever momentum Obama and the Democrats have created.
Obama told a crowd in Cleveland on Thursday that he was fine with that.
"We just heard today that well, we may not be able to get the bill out of the Senate by the end of August or the beginning of August," he said. "That's OK. I just want people to keep on working. Just keep working. I want the bill to get out of the committees, and then I want that bill to go to the floor, and then I want that bill to be reconciled between the House and the Senate, and then I want to sign a bill. And I want it done by the end of this year. I want it done by the fall."
While the President's confidence is appreciated, the fact that Congress is likely going to go a month without discussing, debating or amending any of the countless health reform bills floating around both chambers could spell good news for reform opponents. Republican National committee chairman Michael Steele has been on the offensive in that regard, calling Obama's plan for a reform a "dangerous experiment," while South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint said that Republicans would make health care reform Obama's "Waterloo. It will break him."
Add Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) to the list of naysayers. He made note of Clinton's reform attempts in 1993 on Janet Parshall's radio show on Wednesday, saying he expected a similar political victory for the Republicans should they again defeat health care reform. Though the Republican Party is arguably in worse shape now than it was in 1993, Inhofe's point is a fair one.
An argument can be made that Republicans and centrist Democrats (derisively called "Blue Dog" Democrats) would shoulder the blame if Obama's top domestic priority fails, but one can also be made for Obama and the progressives in Congress. The 2010 midterm elections will be very telling if health care reform doesn't pass; do Republicans seize on that opportunity to gain more seats and cut into the Democrats' stranglehold on both chambers, or can the Democrats rightfully place the blame on those right of center en route to giving the progressives a louder voice on Capitol Hill?
Count DeMint, Inhofe and Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) among those counting on a political win if they successfully derail health care reform.
For Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the strategy should be to keep health care reform in the national discussion, even as members of Congress enjoy their paid vacations and their taxpayer-driven health care plans. Pelosi has been far more vocal in the urgency of getting something passed than Reid, even going so far on Wednesday as to suggest the GOP was "scared" of what health care reform would mean for them politically.
Pelosi has also said she is not bound by deals the White House has struck with pillars of the health care industry (such as pharmaceutical companies), and that Blue Dogs Democrats wouldn't stop the bill. She has also suggested she would support a provision that would tax families making at least $1 million a year to help pay for reform. Obama, while not saying he supported such a tax, did say in his primetime press conference on Wednesday that such a tax would meet his criteria -- he promised during his campaign that no one making less than $250,000 a year would see a tax increase.
Pelosi has also expressed strong support for a public option, something many centrist and conservative Democrats in both chambers have refused to do. Progressives in Washington agree with over 70 percent of the American people in arguing that a public health care option would keep the private insurance companies honest and help keep costs down. Republicans, while not offering ideas of their own, oppose the public option, calling it socialized medicine and trying to scare people into thinking the government will take over people's health care and leave a government agent standing between people and their doctor.
As if that's any scarier than now, when people have insurance representatives standing between them and their doctors.
The biggest key going into the August recess will be how the conversation is steered. If Obama and his progressive allies in Congress can keep hammering home the need for reform -- and they have a lot of help in the form of television ads, according to NBC's Chuck Todd -- missing the August deadline will be nothing more than a speed bump. But if Republicans and health insurance lobbyists can exert their influence in that time, and convince the American people that the plan they want is actually some scary form of socialism, then Obama's plan could fail the way Clinton's -- and Carter's, and Nixon's and Truman's -- did.
That would not only change the landscape in Washington come 2010 and 2012, it would also change the landscape in the health insurance industry, where already there are millions without coverage, millions more are losing coverage and 62 percent of all personal bankruptcies in this country are at least partially due to medical bills.
The Republicans might be smart in their own way to battle health care reform for political reasons, but they'll be hurting their constituents -- the people they allegedly serve -- in the process. There's a time to play politics and there's a time to buckle down and focus on what's right for the American people.
This, ladies and gentlemen on both sides of the aisle, is the latter.