The Reconciliation Option -- Don't Do It Democrats

On Monday morning, in advance of this week's bipartisan health care summit, President Obama posted a new plan for reform on the White House Web site. It closely resembles the Senate bill that passed in December.

On a conference call with reporters, White House staffers told them that if Republicans refuse to cooperate with the Democrats, the president will urge Congress to move forward with the bill through the budget “reconciliation” process. This would allow lawmakers to pass the measure with just 51 votes, effectively bypassing a Republican filibuster. Many Democrats are clamoring to employ reconciliation regardless of Republican participation.

Passing a comprehensive health care bill via reconciliation is a bad idea. It represents just the sort of hyper-partisan policymaking Americans don't want. Democrats would be setting themselves up for big losses in November.

Last year, voter discontent over partisanship led to Republican victories in Virginia, and New Jersey. This year it created the upset victory for Scott Brown in Massachusetts. In 2010, at least eight seats in the Senate are up for grabs, as well as around 30 in the House. The momentum is already moving in the Republicans' direction, so that number is likely to swell as time goes in.

If the Democrats pass health care reform with a party-line vote, a betting man would have to give pretty good odds that the Republicans will win many of those seats. The existing bills need to be scrapped. Democrats need to start over with a fresh bill, and embrace ideas that have broad-based support.

That’s what Americans want. A recent Rasmussen poll found that fully 58 percent of voters disapprove of the existing health care bills -- and 61 percent want Congress to start over on reform. Plus, there are a number of substantive proposals that would bring down costs and expand coverage while attracting widespread support from both parties.

Consider insurance reform. Prohibiting insurers from denying coverage to patients with pre-existing conditions is a reform that's long overdue. This proposal is included in the president's proposal, and it's popular with voters of all political stripes. Indeed, it could act as the centerpiece of a bipartisan bill.

But more can be done with existing insurance regulations.

For example, lawmakers should allow consumers to purchase health insurance plans across state line. Doing so would inject some desperately needed competition into the health care market. Insurers would face new pressure to attract patients, leading to lower prices and more choices.
A bipartisan bill should also take cost control seriously.

Here, there’s bipartisan agreement on the importance of health information technology. Too many hospitals still use paper records, leading to delays and subpar treatment. Instituting a modern, tech-savvy electronic records system could eliminate a lot of inefficiency. About 75 percent of the American public already wants health care providers to use electronic records, according a Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

Lawmakers could also trim health care costs through comparative effectiveness research, which compares different medicines to determine which ones work best. Of course, it's crucial that Americans have access to the best drugs and treatments. But money is sometimes wasted on expensive new medicines that don't deliver better results. Medical professionals should be better able to determine which treatments are worth the price.

Lawmakers might also consider malpractice reform. President Obama praised it in his State of the Union. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called it “a good starting point” during his speech at this month’s Conservative Political Action Conference.

And from a policy perspective, it makes sense. Every year, one in eight physicians is sued – yet they're cleared of guilt over 90 percent of the time. The fear of malpractice suits drives doctors to practice defensive medicine, ordering unnecessary tests and treatments. This behavior costs an estimated $124 billion annually in additional health care spending.

Americans appreciate these costs. Nearly two-thirds support imposing caps on tort payouts.

Democrats need to start over with health care reform, and embrace ideas that can garner support on both sides of the aisle – like malpractice reform, eliminating denials of insurance coverage based on pre-existing conditions, cost control, and electronic record-keeping.

Some Democrats will surely think that such a strategy is simply capitulating to the Republicans. The opposite is true, though. Back in 1996, when President Bill Clinton moved forward with tax, spending, and welfare reform, he seized some political ground and successfully demonized Speaker Newt Gingrich.

So long as President Obama gives up the threat of reconciliation, he still has a chance of passing reform and helping his Party hold on to both chambers of Congress. The White House Summit is a great opportunity to start this discussion. Americans want Washington to act on health care. They just don't want a partisan bill.

Douglas E. Schoen, a campaign consultant for more than 30 years, and a Fox News contributor, is the author of "The Political Fix: Changing the Game of American Democracy, from the Grass Roots to the White House " (Henry Holt, 2010). 

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