March 18, 2010
Can it possibly be? After a year of dithering, this week the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives will actually attempt to ram through a health-care bill that has already passed the Senate and send it to the President's desk.
Forget the niceties. Forget bipartisanship. Even forget it's a bill many Democrats don't particularly like.
Just do it.
Finally, an act of courage from a party, or most of a party, now fabled for its spinelessness and liberal angst. Next thing you know they'll be taking on Big Coal.
Even their Supreme Leader Barack Obama has shed his failed big-tent strategy and is starting to act like Lyndon Johnson, postponing a trip to Indonesia to fan the embers of his dispirited base and to cajole his party's waverers in the House.
It's a do-or-die battle for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her minions. Unlike the Republicans, who stand like a stone wall against the legislation, the Democrats are the usual herd of cats. At one end, you've got all those Blue Cats that object because the bill goes too far; at the other you've got those Pink Cats that object because it doesn't go far enough; and then you've got the abortion-rights advocates and opponents, both reluctant to compromise.
Can Pelosi pull it off?
On the PBS NewsHour on Friday, pundits Mark Shield and David Brooks were both uncharacteristically flummoxed. "Right now they're short" of the 216 votes necessary to put the measure over the top, Brooks said. "But Pelosi is very smart and knows what she's doing. I don't see how they'll do it, but I assume they're very close."
If Obama, Pelosi, and Co. can come up with the votes, it will be the biggest legislative coup since Johnson passed Medicare in 1965, or at least since Clinton passed the surplus- generating tax hike by a tie-breaking vote in 1993. It would not only be a step towards reshaping U.S. health care; it would also give Democrats something like faith in themselves, a sense of solidarity that could result in bold initiatives on education, environment, agriculture, lobbying, obstructionists be damned. "Yes we can!" could at last be not a campaign slogan but a party mandate.
There's no doubt that the bill Pelosi wants to pass is flawed. It's your standard sausage, a mishmash of provisions that keep the present dysfunctional "system" virtually intact. Nevertheless, as many advocates of a "Medicare for All" single- payer system agree, it's far better than nothing, a modest reform that moves toward universal coverage and control of insurance- company policies and profits.
Believe it or not, there seems to be a certain sense of moral obligation to this effort. With mid-term elections coming up, many House Democrats in swing districts are rightly worried that a yes vote will give the Tea Party people ammunition enough to shoot them down. Their bet will have to be that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is wrong, that the American people don't "hate this bill" but are merely skittish about it, and that once it becomes a fact rather than a fantasy, they will eventually wonder how they ever got along without it, much like what happened with Medicare and, more recently, with Massachusetts' compulsory-insurance law.
Access to health care is not so much a matter of dollars as of justice. The Democrats now have the chance to show what they're made of. Amazingly, they just might be made of principle.