WASHINGTON — Do Republicans matter as Congress digs more deeply into the details of writing health care legislation?
The Senate Finance Committee will resume its deliberations Tuesday, when it's expected to consider whether the government should create a "public option" to compete with the private sector, as well as other issues.
The chances are good that the committee will approve key provisions with few, if any, Republican votes.
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Nevertheless, Democratic leaders continue to talk about a yen for bipartisanship, if only because near-unanimous Republican opposition to a final health care bill could create political problems for Democrats next year.
So far, Democrats seem to be courting only one Republican on the committee, Olympia Snowe of Maine. Their leaders have offered her lavish praise.
"I especially applaud Olympia Snowe today for her, I think, brilliant statement. It was in keeping with how she legislates," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters after Snowe gave her opening statement.
However, it also may have been telling that Reid's tone changed dramatically a few minutes later when he discussed other Republicans.
"Despite all our efforts to reach across the aisle, Republicans have chosen not to be part of the discussion," he said. "They want, obviously, to maintain the status quo."
Translation: Reid would like Republican support, but he's prepared to proceed without it.
His task became somewhat easier Friday, when Sen. Paul Kirk, D-Mass., was sworn in to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, meaning that Democrats once again control 60 Senate seats, enough to overcome procedural hurdles.
A Republican or two is insurance against a renegade Democrat, or one who's unable to vote. (For instance, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., has missed votes all year because of illness.) Because of a rules change in the Senate, however, after Oct. 15 it will take only 51 votes to proceed, making Republican support even less valuable.
In the House of Representatives, where Democrats have a 79-seat majority, Republicans hardly seem to matter. Although the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of 52 conservative Democrats, has expressed concern about health care's cost and a government-run option, Democrats need to hold only 14 of them to retain a majority.
Republicans say that they're seen but not heard.
"I'm not aware of any formal or informal effort by the Democratic leadership in the House to engage Republicans in the formation of health care legislation," said House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence, R-Ind.
The Senate is a different matter, and not just for procedural reasons. President Barack Obama would love to label health care a bipartisan effort, and having Snowe and perhaps others who've worked closely with Democrats in the past would allow him to do that.
Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., spent months negotiating with Snowe and Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., on health care.
The talks broke down, and Grassley, who's worked closely with Democrats on the Finance Committee for years, concluded that this time, Democrats weren't interested in compromise.
"It seems that the White House and the leadership, from the beginning, were never really going to give it time to do it right," Grassley said Tuesday in his opening statement. "We could get no assurances that the Democratic leadership or the White House would have backed a bipartisan effort, after it left this committee, and that was a big concern on my side of the aisle over a long period of time."
"My door's always open. I just hope — believe — we can find a way where you and others can be part of this moment in history where we finally enact health care reform for America. I deeply appreciate the manner in which we have been operating together, Senator."
Some of the other usual Republican moderates also were wary. "I am opposed to the Baucus bill because of the fiscal ramifications," Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said flatly.
Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who's worked on a number of bipartisan health care measures, saw little hope for true Republican input. He and other Republicans found too many important schisms. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky set the tone Friday, calling Baucus' bill a "trillion-dollar experiment (that) cuts Medicare, raises taxes and threatens the health care choices that millions of Americans enjoy."
Snowe has a somewhat different constituency and agenda from most congressional Republicans. The veteran Maine senator is one of the few remaining moderate Republicans, one of three who sided with Obama earlier this year to help him pass his economic stimulus plan.
She called Baucus' plan "a solid starting point," and praised some of the small business provisions, notably a change that would exempt many from mandatory insurance requirements. She also welcomed the creation of health insurance exchanges, in which many consumers could shop for lower-cost policies, as a "powerful" change.
After she made those points in the committee this week, Baucus told her that he "deeply appreciated" her remarks.
Snowe could wind up as the only Republican who's backing the Democratic health care plan, said Mark Brewer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maine.
"She's had that independent streak throughout her career," he said, and any worry about being an outcast is balanced by a constituency that wants changes in the health care system, and that re-elected her in 2006 for a third term with 74 percent of the vote.
However, Hatch said, getting only one or two Republican senators to vote for a Democratic-authored plan "would not be bipartisanship," and that would mean that Democrats are taking a risk. Going into the 2010 election cycle, a bill that passed with only one or two Republican votes could leave Democrats vulnerable if the new system proves unpopular.
"You do want bipartisan support for something as sensitive and sweeping as this," said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. "It adds to its legitimacy."
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