Still working on a definition of ‘bipartisan’

STILL WORKING ON A DEFINITION OF ‘BIPARTISAN’…. Ross Douthat’s column on health care reform notes that Democrats and Republicans not only disagree on the policy, but also on the definition of “bipartisanship.”

For President Obama, being “bipartisan” means incorporating a few right-of-center proposals into an essentially liberal legislative package. For Republicans, it means doing only those things that legislators of both parties can agree on — a far more stringent standard, and one that would produce a very different bill.

Hence the frustration on both sides with the way the health care debate has proceeded. To Democrats, the right’s complaints about having its ideas ignored are purely cynical. Doesn’t the proposed legislation include ideas endorsed by prominent conservative economists? Don’t some of its proposals resemble those championed by John McCain? Didn’t Democrats eschew a single-payer approach in favor of a reform that retains a role for private insurers?

To conservatives, this misses the point: It isn’t the details of the bill that they object to, it’s the overall design.

That’s at least partially true. Republicans have concluded that the basic framework of the Democratic proposal — subsidies for the uninsured, consumer protections — is fundamentally at odds with failed minority party’s ideology. (At least, that’s what they’ve concluded now. A few months ago, Republicans agreed — publicly and repeatedly — that they found 80 percent of the Democratic plan entirely reasonable.)

With this in mind, when Democrats embrace specific GOP provisions, it doesn’t seem to matter, precisely because, as Douthat noted, Republicans reject the premise. It’s like Democrats chose to order a pizza for dinner, and invited the GOP to help pick the toppings. But Republicans don’t want a pizza for dinner; they want tire rims and anthrax. Choosing toppings is little consolation.

But Douthat’s description of the GOP’s understanding of bipartisanship is overly broad. For Republican leaders, the idea isn’t to stick to “only those things that legislators of both parties can agree on” — itself a ridiculous notion when the parties differ — but rather to stick to only those things the GOP can tolerate.

Indeed, just last week, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), among others, said the only health care reform package that can pass is the one created entirely by GOP lawmakers. Democrats may be in the majority, but the minority party believes only their ideas should be allowed to come to the floor for votes. The “only” health care plan Republicans will consider, Cantor said, is the Republican plan.

In this sense, “bipartisanship” is defined as giving Republicans exactly what they want, and nothing else. Period.

And if this were a normal legislative dynamic for the United States, such an argument would be laughed at and dismissed. But because Republicans have decided that the majority is no longer allowed to govern, and up-or-down votes can only occur if the GOP approves of the underlying bill, we’re left with this maddening status quo.