The moderates and centrists critical to ongoing health care negotiations seemed to have found a good deal to their liking in the president’s speech tonight. Senator Olympia Snowe—a central focal point for the TV cameras scanning the chamber—issued a statement tonight that praised the President’s stated desire to bend the cost curve and, just as significantly, to ensure that the bill does not add to the deficit. “I was particularly pleased to hear the President’s proposal will require additional spending cuts if projected savings aren’t realized—as it is vital we maintain budget neutrality as fundamental to any final package,” Snowe said in the statement. Ben Nelson issued a particularly positive statement—one that included no direct criticism of the speech. In it, the Nebraska senator insisted that he was “pleased” that Obama had released the specifics of his plan. “I remain committed to work with the President and my colleagues for a bipartisan bill,” Nelson said, emphasizing the importance of “not bust[ing] the bank” with the bill. Altogether, by prioritizing a budget-neutral plan, Obama provided significant political cover for moderates in the bill, one senior Congressional aide tells me. “He made a pretty powerful case that we’re not going to add to the deficit.”
Moreover, the section of the speech that seemed to draw the most enthusiasm from the Republicans—his discussion of medical tort reform—may have been more than just a throwaway GOP applause line. Congressman Bart Gordon, who had been one of the Blue Dog holdouts in the House, devoted his entire reaction statement to the subject, expressing his pleasure that Obama had “talked about the problem of defensive medicine.” To be sure, Gordon had personally authored a last-minute amendment to the House bill that provided incentive payments to states to “reduce frivolous lawsuits” without capping malpractice awards. But other Blue Dogs (like Mike Ross) and more moderate Republicans (like George Voinovich) share this concern, which had up until now played only a marginal role in the mainstream reform debate. Yes, some leading policy analysts have cast significant doubt on whether tort reform will actually rein in health care costs. But if its inclusion in the bill takes the limited form that Obama suggested, it could be the kind of concession that would help get Obama’s moderate Democratic allies fired up to support the bill.
Of course, even those centrists who went out of their way to praise Obama didn’t let him off scot-free. Snowe, for instance, opened her statement with strongly-worded criticisms of the public plan, indicating that she would have “preferred that the issue were taken off the table” as “any bill with a public option will not pass the Senate.” But she ultimately came around to saying that she feels encouraged that the president has recognized her trigger as a real alternative. So, if Obama’s goal was to ease the concerns of those between the left wing of the Democratic Party and the (nearly monolithic) obstructionist wing of the Republican Party, he succeeded. There was little that such moderates “would feel alienated from,” the Hill aide tells me. “I think [Obama] really cast himself as a centrist.”