Fleeting moment of bipartisanship on health reform


Now that health care reform has finally come down to the ugliest partisan spectacle of an ugly partisan decade, it’s fair to ask whether President Barack Obama’s notion of a new bipartisan era ever stood a chance.

Tuesday, we got an insightful answer from an insider, William F. Pewen, a health policy adviser to Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe.

Snowe was a member of the so-called “Gang of Six,” the powerful members of the Senate Finance Committee — three Republicans and three Democrats — who came closest to the bipartisan ideal in shaping a health care plan.

Pewen speaks highly of that effort in a column Tuesday in The New York Times, claiming the six were able to work “outside the spotlight” and to counter each others’ “excesses.”

Unfortunately, that sort of collegiality has all but disappeared from Congress at large, and the balanced bill that Snowe’s committee crafted later dissolved in the acid bath of partisanship after it emerged from committee.

Pewen’s account spares neither Democrats nor Republicans from blame.

Despite surveys showing that three out of four Americans want a health care overhaul, “many Republicans,” Pewen writes, “had decided even before Inauguration Day to block reform, including policies that their party had previously supported.”

He labels Republican demands to “start over” for what they are — political posturing. Many of the concepts in this Democratic bill mirror things the Republican Party suggested as far back as 1993.

Pewen says Republican cries for fiscal responsibility “ring hollow,” considering the “party’s record of establishing higher-cost private Medicare plans and enacting a drug benefit that wasn’t paid for” during the Bush administration

As Obama is fond of pointing out, Republicans controlled the presidency for eight years and Congress for much of that time and did nothing about health care — except to add to the unfunded government liability.

But Pewen also says Democrats failed to recognize the complexity of the task, largely shut Republicans out of the process, fixated on the public option for far too long and produced a bloated bill by adding excess “regulation, spending and taxes.”

He also lays the failure to legalize prescription drug importation at the feet of Democrats who, he says, cut a deal with the pharmaceutical industry for its support of the Democratic reform plan. This could have saved Americans $100 billion, Pewen writes.

Pharmaceuticals might be the only industry in the country spared foreign competition. If only the paper industry could get a break like that.

At this point, Democrats appear intent on using parliamentary maneuvers to pass their health care plan. Republicans seem content to protest in the loudest possible terms and for maximum political benefit.

Meanwhile, most Americans are confused and conflicted, realizing that the current system is broken and unsustainable, but fearing the Democratic plan is more expensive than we can afford.

There was a golden moment in this long, tortured process when bipartisanship was truly on display, in the earnest work done by Olympia Snowe and the “Gang of Six.”

Sadly, the moment was fleeting.

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