Nearly six weeks of hand-wringing over stalled health care legislation has produced neither bipartisan compromise nor brilliant brainstorms. The only road to real reform remains the same: President Barack Obama has to persuade House Democrats to pass the Senate bill and sign it into law with the promise to make changes later. To give up now would be to surrender to political fear and special interests — and the losers would be Americans who deserve more affordable, accessible health coverage.
It is understandable that many House Democrats are wavering, particularly in an election year when voters already are in a sour mood because of the recession. Republicans also have been far better at spreading misinformation than Democrats have been at explaining the real benefits of reform. But it is not a winning election strategy for Democrats to throw in the towel after coming this far and concede they cannot even muster enough votes among themselves for meaningful reform.
Obama was slow to respond to Republican attacks, and he let Congress fiddle with the details too long before becoming publicly engaged in the substance of the bills. He finally offered his own constructive changes to the Senate bill, and his enlightening televised summit demonstrated his grasp of the issue and the GOP's unwillingness to offer significant contributions. Last week, Obama finally found a little Lyndon Johnson within himself and began summoning Democrats to the White House to press for support for the Senate bill.
As Republicans cry foul, remember how far the health care debate has advanced. After months of debate last year, the House and Senate approved differing reform bills before Christmas. Both bills would cover millions of uninsured Americans, begin to control increases in medical costs and reduce the federal deficit over the next decade. The differences would have been resolved, health care reform would have become law and Obama would have been celebrating a historic accomplishment but for Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy's death. The Senate's champion of health care reform was succeeded by a Republican in a January special election, leaving Democrats one vote short of the 60 needed to end Republican filibusters. The lack of one vote now to overcome the Senate's arcane procedural rules should not prevent millions from having access to health care.
It is time for House Democrats to stand up for comprehensive health care reform, which has been their party's goal for decades. Republicans will shift the public discussion to congressional rules. They decry using a process called reconciliation to make changes to the Senate bill by majority vote, and they have a point. But first House Democrats need to pass the Senate bill. Then the discussion can turn to the best, fairest means to fix some provisions — many of which would not take effect for years.
Obama pledged during his campaign to deliver meaningful health care reform. Republicans, including those in the Tampa Bay area, would rather be obstructionists than constructive partners. So the president has no choice but to lean on House Democrats to come through. To fail now would be to fail millions of uninsured Americans, including nearly 4 million uninsured Floridians, and millions more holding on to health insurance by their fingernails.