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An Argument For Bipartisanship, Worth Taking Seriously

In the world of liberal commentary, fans of bipartisanship were hard to find last week. With Republican opposition threatening to hold up legislation in both Senate committees writing health reform, writers urged Democrats to strike out on their own and, if necessary, to pass legislation on a straight, party-line vote. E.J. Dionne may have put it best:

Where did we get the idea that the only good health-care bill is a bipartisan bill? Is bipartisanship more important than whether a proposal is practical and effective? And if bipartisanship is a legitimate goal, isn't each party equally responsible for achieving it?

As readers of this blog know, I had similiar thoughts. And on Wednesday, after watching the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee markup, I was feeling particularly grumpy. I proceeded to write an item trashing the HELP Republicans, for refusing to embrace even basic concepts of reform. Then I wrote an item trashing Mitch McConnell, for talking nonsense about rationing. And then I wrote an item offering lukewarm praise for a proposal hammered out through the Bipartisan Policy Center and endorsed by two Republican luminaries, Howard Baker and Bob Dole. 

In response, a source I know and trust--somebody with the right values, at least from my perspective--wrote me back, suggesting I (like the other writers) had been too dismissive of bipartisanship: 

One thing you might think about:  Even if you are not enamored with the bipartisan policy vision, it is important to get something like this out to help box in Democrats, who are fleeing everywhere they can go. It might even motivate some fence-sitting Republicans.

Trust me, we have a major problem with these folks. If we had 67 Dems, maybe I would be more confident, but a lot of our Dems want Republican cover. Moreover, the public’s mood on this issue--as outlined by Stan Greenberg, in your magazine--is not exactly overwhelmingly positive, particularly when you consider how popular President Obama is. The way I read it, in the absence of some whiff of bipartisanship, the public may be extremely vulnerable to opponents’ attacks. The Baker/Daschle/Dole/Mitchell product could help give cover in this and other regards.
I know some of my progressive colleagues disagree. I understand that. But before we decide we're done with Grassley and Enzi and the rest, please show me that we have enough Democrats to pass if the GOP is united in opposition.

My gut tells me we don't. And if that's the case, we're not going to do better than $1 to $1.2 trillion over ten years. At that price, do you really think we can do better than the bipartisan group did?

This source counts votes better than I do, so I take this advice seriously. Very seriously. And it makes me think I should be clear about my assessment of the Baker-Dole bipartisan proposal. Although not my ideal package, it still has much to recommend it. It puts in place most of the essential architecture for reform: An exchange; a stronger Medicaid program; a requirement that everybody get coverage; financing for the scheme; and a set of delivery reforms that would realign reimbursements in order to reward efficiency and quality. Make no mistake: These are not minor things.

The subsidies seem low. The public plan is, well, not really there. But that's bipartisanship; it means making some compromises. And, at the moment, it actually looks better than what the Senate Finance Committee is contemplating.

Of course, that still leaves one, very big question: What about the Republicans--not the ones who used to be in Congress, like Baker and Dole, but the ones who are there now? Would they take this deal? It's hardly clear they would. Then again, maybe that's not necessary. One virtue of this proposal's appearance--as my source suggests--is that it gives moderate Democrats a little more political cover, should reform come down to a party-line vote.

--Jonathan Cohn