‘A setup for a sellout’

‘A SETUP FOR A SELLOUT’…. There was some interesting discussion last week on whether now would be a good time for President Obama to take more of a hands-on approach to health care reform, twisting arms and knocking heads before the larger effort skids off the rails. Michael Tomasky made the case for more intervention; Ezra Klein argued for White House restraint, at least for now.

Today, the Washington Post‘s E.J. Dionne Jr. more or less takes Tomasky’s side, arguing that the president can make a difference at this stage of the legislative process, addressing angles that “only Obama’s intervention can solve.” But in making the case, Dionne raises an important point about “the absence of substantial Republican support for comprehensive change.”

Max Baucus, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has done everything short of making ethanol a reimbursable prescription drug to win the heart of his good Republican friend from Iowa, Chuck Grassley.

I’m told that Grassley, under immense pressure from Republican colleagues not to deal at all, has informed Baucus that he cannot sign on to a bill if it is supported by only one other Republican, the sensible Olympia Snowe of Maine. Grassley needs more cover from more conservative colleagues.

This creates a terrible dynamic in which Baucus is pushed toward one concession after another. It’s a setup for a sellout. And the compromise Baucus is likely to produce cannot be the final word.

Dionne is clearly right, and his observations raise more than a few concerns. Matt Yglesias noted, for example, that Grassley’s search for bipartisan “cover” is ridiculous: “[A] new consensus is emerging that for a bill to be ‘really’ bipartisan, it’s not good enough to acquire the vote of the 41st-most-conservative Senator (Ben Nelson) or even the 40th- and 39th-most-conservative Senators (Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe). You also need an additional even more conservative Senator. And now we have Chuck Grassley signaling that his commitment to this weird principle is so strong that he would vote against a bill of which he otherwise approves unless a Senator who even more conservative than Grassley agrees to vote for it. But what’s the point of this? Who does this help? The way bipartisan bills happen is that you forge a compromise with the moderate members of the other party. As it happens, there are only two moderate Republicans in the Senate. But that should be understood as the GOP’s problem, not the Democrats’ problem.”

I was also struck by the apparent fact that Grassley, arguably the leading Republican negotiator on health care reform, is “under immense pressure from Republican colleagues not to deal at all.” That seems like a pretty big deal — Democratic lawmakers and the Democratic administration are reaching out to a party that is actively opposed to any constructive discussions.

Indeed, it’s not just Dionne’s point about Grassley. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) was asked how many Senate Republicans could sign on to developing Democratic plans. He told the NYT, “I think right now, none. Zero.”

So, to review, Republican lawmakers — the ones Democrats are trying to find some common ground and consensus with — don’t want to lower health care costs, don’t want to spend money on health care reform, don’t want to do anything that might upset the insurance companies, don’t want to give the government any additional authority in the health care system, and don’t even want to discuss possible reform options with the Democratic majority.

What’s wrong with that? In principle, nothing. Republicans are the opposition party; they’re supposed to oppose what the majority party wants.

The problem, though, is that there’s an ongoing effort on the part of Democrats to generate bipartisan support for a reform initiative that one side of the divide not only rejects, but doesn’t even want to discuss. The appropriate response isn’t to keep making the bill the worse, in the hopes that the GOP will eventually do the right thing; the appropriate response is to write a good bill, invite Republicans to support it, and pass it.

The alternative is, as Dionne put it, “a setup for a sellout.”