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A health-care victory that stinks

By David S. Broder
Thursday, December 24, 2009; A15

The health-care reform bill coming out of the Senate presents a real dilemma for spectators: How do you applaud while holding your nose?

There is so much that is wrong with it -- and the way it was made -- and, at the same time, so much that is right that you just have to shake your head in despair and in wonder.

As one who covered the Clintons' struggle 15 years ago to pass health-care reform and who wrote an overly long book about their failure to even bring it to a vote in a Democratic Congress, I am in awe at the prospect of such a bill making it all the way to the White House.

When implemented years from now, it promises to make as many as 30 million men and women who now live with the fear of illness or hospitalization leading straight to financial ruin eligible for the same care as their more fortunate, insured neighbors.

Six decades after FDR's death, one of his Four Freedoms will, at long last, be guaranteed to almost all Americans. And the shame of this affluent society tolerating the denial of health care to its citizens will be largely lifted.

But Lord, what a load of embarrassment accompanies this sense of satisfaction! What should have been a moment of proud accomplishment for the Senate, right up there with the passage of Social Security and the first civil rights bills, was instead a travesty of low-grade political theater -- angry rhetoric and backroom deals.

There's blame enough to go around. Start with the 40 Republicans, not one of whom was willing to break out of the mold of negative conformity and offer a sustained working partnership in serious legislative effort.

But even those Republicans who were initially inclined to do that -- and there were at least a handful of them -- were turned away by the White House and the Senate Democratic leaders, who never lifted their sights much beyond the Democratic ranks.

Forced to bargain for every vote among the 60 in his caucus, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid did what he usually does: He reduced the negotiations to his own level of transactional morality. Incapable of summoning his colleagues to statesmanship, he made the deals look as crass and parochial as many of them were -- encasing a historic achievement in a wrapping of payoff and patronage.

The taint has rubbed off on the bill. This week's Quinnipiac University poll found a majority of Americans disapproving of the legislation by 53 to 36 percent and an overwhelming number -- 73 to 18 percent -- saying they do not believe it will, as promised, reduce future budget deficits. It now becomes President Obama's responsibility to strengthen the bill's cost-saving features and present them in a better way. Two of them are vulnerable to attack when the bill goes back to conference with the House in January. Liberal Democrats do not like the independent commission in the Senate bill having power to enforce savings in Medicare and the private health system. And labor does not accept the Senate plan to tax high-end insurance plans.

Obama has not intervened with a heavy hand as the bill has moved through the House and Senate, but now it is time for him to act.

It would help a lot if he reached out personally to those few Republicans who might still want to improve the bill rather than sink it. And it would help even more if he shamed the Democrats into rescinding some of the crasser bargains they made to buy votes along the way.

The country would welcome even a few signs that this legislation has bipartisan support.

Then we could applaud its final passage and take our thumbs from our noses.

davidbroder@washpost.com

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