Will Health Care Overhaul Be Partisan Action?
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President Obama wants to overhaul the nation's health care system, and he would like to do it in a bipartisan fashion. But as congressional Democrats put forward details of their proposals, Republicans are objecting loudly. And that raises the question of how many Republicans the Democrats really need or want to support their health care plans.
NPR's David Welna reports.
DAVID WELNA: Ask Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid whether he wants a bipartisan health care bill, and his answer is a portrait of political pragmatism.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): We want to do a bipartisan bill. That's not saying we need half of the caucus to come with us. We need about three or four Republican Senators to join with us to have a bipartisan bill. That's what we would like. That's my preference.
WELNA: But Republican leaders have lined up against the Democrat's insistence on having a public health insurance program to compete with private insurers. Here's Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): Democrats and Congress are trying to rush through a health care bill that would not only lead to a government-run system, but will do so by spending trillions of dollars and plunging our economy deeper and deeper into debt.
WELNA: So far, three Democratic health care plans are working their way through House and Senate committees. But only the Senate Finance Committee's bill really aims to pick up Republican support. Max Baucus is that committee's Democratic chairman.
Senator MAX BAUCUS (Democrat, Montana; Chairman, Senate Finance Committee): This is extremely complicated, and senators want find a good - a solution. Republicans want to do - not every Republican, though a lot of Republicans want to find a solution they could vote for here, and it's just a matter of keeping them talking, asking questions and comparing the policy, comparing the politics.
WELNA: It's still not clear how many Republicans will back Baucus' health care bill. But it will eventually have to be merged with a more liberal and partisan bill being drawn up by the Senate's Health Committee. Democrat Christopher Dodd, who's that panel's acting chairman, questions how bipartisan a final health care bill needs to be.
Senator CHRISTOPHER DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): Bipartisanship is a means by which you can attain a good bill. But I could describe a bipartisan result here that didn't do anything. I mean, you know, so we're missing what the goal - the goal is to get an important bill done. And important bills, you know, some of the major bills that have affected the welfare of the country weren't terribly bipartisan - some cases, hardly at all.
WELNA: Indeed, Princeton political historian Julian Zelizer says the 1965 bill creating Medicare did get some Republican votes, but not enough to be remembered.
Professor JULIAN ZELIZER (History, Politics, Princeton University): What people remember, it was a Democratic Congress that did it. It was Lyndon Johnson that did it. And Republicans are always forced to answer: Why didn't they push for a program like that?
WELNA: Which may be why some Senate Republicans such as Utah's Orrin Hatch want a health care bill that they can vote for, as well.
Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): We need bipartisan legislation, and that's not one, two, three or four Republicans. If they would work with us, I think we could get a bill that would pass with 78 votes.
WELNA: For most Republicans, though, the public insurance plan Democrats insist on remains a deal breaker. South Dakota's Senator John Thune sees little chance of broad, bipartisan support for overhauling health care.
Senator JOHN THUNE (Republican, South Dakota): If you had a handicapper today, my sense is that the momentum is sort of coming out of this. And to restart that, they're going to have to be willing to come to the table and sit down, I think with Republicans, and consult with us. And right now, they're trying to drive this thing and just do with Democrat votes. And they may be able to get that done.
WELNA: But the Senate Democrat's chief vote counter says he likely will need some Republicans to vote for health care legislation. Majority Whip Dick Durbin sees perils, though, in trying to garner such support.
Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois; Majority Whip): We want as many Republican supporters as we can find. We want to make certain that the bill is worth supporting at the end. We have to keep our Democratic caucus together. If we make concessions to bring on Republicans that costs us Democratic votes, it's not much of a win.
WELNA: In the end, Senate Democrats could resort to muscling through health care legislation using an arcane budget device called reconciliation. Under reconciliation, only 51 votes are needed for passage. But nobody's talking about using it - not yet, anyway.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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