Posted on February 25, 2010
Glenn ThrushPresident Barack Obama’s Blair House health care summit was billed as political theater — but it was so dull in parts, it’s hard to imagine anyone would demand a repeat performance.
And boring never looked so beautiful to House and Senate Republicans.
Seven thick hours of substantive policy discussion, preening and low-grade political clashes had Hill staffers nodding at their desks, policy mavens buzzing — and participants declaring the marathon C-SPAN-broadcast session a draw.
But in this case, the tie goes to Republicans, according to operatives on both sides of the aisle — because the stakes were so much higher for Democrats trying to build their case for ramming reform through using a 51-vote reconciliation tactic.
“I think it was a draw, which was a Republican win,” said Democratic political consultant Dan Gerstein. “The Republican tone was just right: a respectful, substantive disagreement, very disciplined and consistent in their message.”
The White House and Hill Democrats had hoped congressional Republicans would prove themselves to be unruly, unreasonable and incapable of a serious policy discussion — “the face of gridlock,” as one Democrat put it hours before the summit.
That didn’t happen Thursday. In the 72 hours leading up to the encounter, Republicans drove a hard bargain with the White House over the seating arrangement — securing a massive square table that put them on a visual par with the president — to underscore their parity and seriousness. The move, ridiculed by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs at the time, paid off.
Obama wasn’t able to dominate them like he did last month during an encounter with House Republicans in Baltimore, when he delivered zingers high above the GOP from a conference room podium.
All of this makes it tougher — though not impossible — for Democrats to make the case that they need to abandon talks with the GOP and immediately proceed with a plan to ram health reform through the Senate using a 50-vote reconciliation tactic.
“He didn’t create the predicate for passing this through reconciliation,” said a senior Senate GOP staffer.
That’s not to say the gathering of 40 House and Senate members wasn’t a shaggy, bumptious, sometimes testy affair. Democrats were less eager to discuss legislative process than present case stories of constituents denied coverage by health insurers — often without explaining how their own bill would benefit those people.
Republicans, for their part, seemed fussy and process-obsessed, particularly when it came to the president’s performance as timekeeper-in-chief.
After the meeting broke up, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, the minority whip, complained “the president actually got [more] speaking time than all of the Republicans.” When Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made the same point early in the session, a clearly peeved Obama shot back, “I’m the president.”
Snippy as they were, Republicans weren’t about to offer Obama a Joe Wilson moment.
The GOP’s smartest move, Democrats say, was picking Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, a folksy, even-keeled conservative with a moderate disposition, to lead off.
Alexander eschewed the usual GOP talking points, instead offering a barbed olive branch, disavowing South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint’s prediction that health care would be Obama’s “Waterloo” — while pressing the moral argument for passing the bill through reconciliation.
“We want you to succeed,” said Alexander, who urged Obama to heed the lessons the senator learned back in 1979 when he was elected as a 39-year-old governor of the Volunteer State.
“Some of the media went up to the Democratic leaders of the Legislature and asked, ‘What are you going to do with the new Republican governor?’ They said, ‘I’m going to help him because if he succeeds, our state succeeds,’” said Alexander. “But often they had to persuade me to change my direction to get our state to where it needed to go. I’d like to say the same thing to you: We want you to succeed, because if you succeed, our country succeeds. But we would like, respectfully, to change [your] direction.”
House Republicans, led by Minority Leader John Boehner and Minority Whip Eric Cantor, were less adroit, harping away on their longtime talking points, brandishing a 2-foot heap of the Senate reform bill. That gave Obama a chance to dismiss their arguments as campaign fodder.
“Why can’t we agree on those insurance reforms that we’ve talked about? Why can’t we come to an agreement on purchasing across state lines? Why can’t we do something about the biggest cost driver, which is medical malpractice and the defensive medicine that doctors practice? Let’s start with a clean sheet of paper where we can actually get somewhere and we can get it into law here in the next several months,” Boehner said.
Obama replied: “John, you know, the challenge I have here, and this has happened periodically, is every so often we have a pretty good conversation trying to get on some specifics and then we go back to the standard talking points that Democrats and Republicans have had for the last year, and that doesn’t drive us to an agreement on issues.”