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Eugene Robinson: Democrats: Find your spines and pass health reform

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Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, February 23, 2010; 1:00 PM

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, Feb. 23 to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

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Read his column: Dick Cheney's dose of reality on 'don't ask, don't tell' in which Gene writes: "If a long-overdue policy shift that would allow gay people to serve openly in the armed forces is fine with three-fourths of the American public, the top officers in the Pentagon hierarchy and Dick Cheney, too, then the times aren't just a-changing. They've already changed."

Archive of past discussions.

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Eugene Robinson: Hi, everybody, and welcome. It's time, once again, to solve all the problems of the world and tell our leaders what to do. Today I wrote about health care -- now that the president has finally put forth a plan, can't Congress just take a vote and let all of us get on with our lives? But of course there's lots more to talk about, including the decision by Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown to join with the Democrats, of all people, on Harry Reid's little jobs bill. Have the Democrats finally found an issue on which Republicans don't vote as an indivisible bloc? How many jobs bills do you think we'll see coming to the floor in the next few weeks?

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Anonymous: Why do you think it is good for the country to pass the healthcare bill when it will still leave 15MM people uninsured and has nothing in it to reduce the cost of healthcare? Tort reform and more insurance company competition would help reduce costs, but why do you suppose Democrats won't include those provisions? It's all about retaining political power and they need the trial lawyers on their side.

Eugene Robinson: You'd rather leave 46 million people uninsured? The bill puts the country in better shape, in terms of health care costs, than if we do nothing. The bill creates more insurance company competition. I don't think tort reform is a panacea, but I wouldn't be surprised if President Obama were open to some version of it.

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Ocean Isle Beach, NC: Why is it taking so long for the Dems to understand the point you are making. If the Dem healthcare plan is as good as Pelosi and Reid are touting, get it passed and have it proved on its merits. The voters can see if what was promised is true and the Dems win, or find it is a mess and pay the price at the polls. However, that course takes true leadership and I don't know if the Dems can exercise it. Also, why is Pres. Obama still afraid to say where he stands on reconciliation and a gov't option?

Eugene Robinson: To your first question, I don't know. To your second question, I have no idea.

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Raleigh,NC: Eugene,

Who do you think came up with Nixon style price controls to put this over the top? Axelrod? Plouffe? Obama? Intern pool?

Seriously though, given what happened the last time price controls were tried at a National level ( tell me you do remember, right?), Do you really think it is wise to try again?

Eugene Robinson: You're talking about the president's new proposal to let federal officials limit egregious hikes in health insurance premiums nationwide. I do remember the days when we had wage and price controls, and while this is nothing compared to what Nixon did, I have to confess that I wondered just how this is supposed to work. It's an attractive goal -- protecting the consumer -- and should play well politically. But it sounds like a hard thing to do well.

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Orlando, Fl: From Diocletian to Richard Nixon price controls have not worked. Are you going to mandate that the company stays in business if it cannot make a profit? How? Do you think that the Government should pick up the tab to keep the companies in business once you have driven them out of business by forcing them into unprofitablity?

Eugene Robinson: Utilities are regulated and make nice profits.

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Arlington, Virginia: I'm at a little bit of a loss to understand why Congress would have to use reconciliation to pass a bill modeled on the Senate bill. A better choice would be for the House to pass the Senate bill and then change the unpopular (i.e., Nebraska) provisions through the budget process. For some reason the dialogue is now focused on using the budget process to push a health care bill through the Senate that is pretty much the same as the bill the Senate passed by regular order. Am I missing something?

Eugene Robinson: Just that the House won't pass the Senate bill unless the modifications are agreed to first, according to Speaker Pelosi. I had a chance to speak with her about this, not long ago, and she was pretty adamant that she couldn't get the Senate bill through her chamber with just a promise that changes would be made.

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Tolland, CT: Hi Gene

Thanks for taking the question. I am a scientist (NOT a climate scientist) and so I value evidence and reasoned arguments. I can't tell you how absolutely crazy some of the recent political chattering makes me. There are no heroes here, but in my view the Republicans absolutely excel in taking an argument that makes no sense and getting the majority of Americans to nod along. Recently of course this is the "snow in DC = global warming is a crock" hullabaloo. But other recent examples include Pres. Obama's teleprompter (the best political orator of modern times = can't talk his way out of a paper bag), and turning a genuine war hero (Kerry) into a wimp while someone who avoided the war by partying in Texas = a ruff, tuff manly man. So my question is, how do they do it? Is it the echo chamber of talk radio, where a certain segment of the population are only exposed to a single point of view? I am truly baffled

Eugene Robinson: I have no idea what the secret is, but they're brilliant at turning a strength into a perceived weakness. Even as the Republican Party goes through a pretty serious identity crisis, its message machine remains disciplined, emphatic and very effective.

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Philadelphia, PA: I typically agree with your point of view and always appreciate your (increasingly rare) caliber of analysis and level-headedness. I did disagree, however, with the first part of your column today. Certainly the administration should have done more on the communications front, to counteract and disprove the outright lies about the plans in progress, to push the correct, catchy and truthful messaging forward. But I think Obama's respect for the legislative process is both a credit to him and a pragmatic reality. The fact is, there are any number of ways to move us forward on health care access -- the bar is quite low. It makes total sense to me, since at the end of the day votes are needed from our legislators, to throw out a set of objectives and principles, see what people are willing to support, and then when the dust settles forge a workable solution. Yes, it's an ugly process at times. But it's one that has made for a better, fairer bill over time.

This was never going to be easy. I'd like us to reserve judgment for a few years on whether the course taken was the right course, in terms of policy or even politics.

Eugene Robinson: Fair enough, and you make an excellent point. It certainly made sense to try something other than the fait accompli method that the Clintons used. But I still think that the president could have short-circuited some of the wrangling inside the Democratic caucus by giving clearer signals on what he had to have in a reform bill and what he could live without. I know he had many private conversations with the Hill leadership, but I think a lot of Democratic voters were left confused and dispirited.

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Arlington, Virginia: The Republicans used reconciliation to pass pretty much everything for six years and I'm not sure in that whole time I ever saw the word mentioned outside of Roll Call or a CQ publication. Now, the Republicans have implied that "reconciliation" is code for socialist subversion of the republic and the word is mentioned in every article about health care, sometimes paired with forecasts that it will hang like an albatross around the necks of the Democrats come November. Any explanation for this disjunction in our public dialogue?

Eugene Robinson: The GOP message machine. It's good at what it does.

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Thursday's summit: Gene, the Repubs are whining that this is a "setup" (A plus for spelling, Rep. Pence) and, even though I'm a Democrat, I agree. The President has issued his plan and is now saying "What do you have?" He's framing the argument around the assumption that a health care bill will pass, which is not the ground on which the Republicans want to fight this.

I think the summit is a pure political stunt.

And I totally approve of it. IF the Dems do indeed pass a health care bill in the end.

Eugene Robinson: It's totally a set-up, and it's totally fair and appropriate. There was an election in 2008, and one party was put in control of the White House and Congress. The minority party doesn't get to demand that the majority party rip up a year's work and start over. If Republicans really want to have input, they should bring their proposals and argue for them. If they don't want to play, well, that will be obvious for all to see.

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The "government is broken" argument is overrated: Gene, the only reason there's any gridlock in Washington is the need for 60 votes to pass something in the Senate. If the Democrats could pass bills with a simple majority, health care would have been finished by now, along with all of Obama's appointments. I wish the media would be more accurate in describing this.

Eugene Robinson: I don't think the media have kept the 60-vote barrier a secret. Yes, the rule has brought the Senate to near-paralysis. But it's also true that presidents -- and majority leaders -- have gotten big things done in the past despite the filibuster, even back when a full two-thirds vote was needed to move ahead. Let's also recognize that the Democrats have healthy majorities in both houses.

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Beachwood, Ohio: Could Scott Brown have started a new revolution...free thinking Republicans??? Oh my!

Eugene Robinson: When he took office and proclaimed himself "a Scott Brown Republican" -- in effect, saying that he was his own brand -- I knew that Mitch McConnell was going to have a problem on his hands.

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Richmond, VA: I think Steve Pearlstein had an interesting column and Q&A the other day about the limits of consensus building as a leadership model.

The Democratic bill is based on an overall approach that has more government involvement than Republicans are willing to accept. Adding in Tort reform or selling across state lines won't address this. Conversely, the Republican approach as evidenced by Paul Ryan's proposal is probably not acceptable to 99% of Democrats.

What this means is that a "bipartisan consensus" is not likely to happen. The only thing we have "bipartisan consensus" on is using Predator drones to kill terrorists. The voters know this, which is why they put one party in charge of all branches of government. Blaming the Republicans for the inability of the Democrats to use the majorities the voters entrusted with them is misplaced. I think EJ Dionne had it pretty much dead on here.

The real question is why Obama defines success as having Republican support?

Eugene Robinson: I have a theory, which is that the White House is aware that voters say they want bipartisanship. Polls show that Obama consistently gets good marks for "reaching out" to Republicans. But I agree with your analysis. The idea that there is always a middle position is ludicrous. Sometimes there is, sure, but there isn't really a compromise between "enact comprehensive health care reform" and "don't enact comprehensive health reform, no matter what it looks like."

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Chicago, IL: My best friend - a 10-year breast cancer survivor - was just denied health insurance, saying she could not be insured until she was 15 years cancer-free. Her COBRA just ran out and her current employer does not provide health benefits. Should her cancer return in the next 5 years, her just-above-minimum-wage job will not even begin to cover expenses. What does the GOP propose for individuals like Marianne who currently cannot be insured?

Thank you, Mr. Robinson. I still haven't recovered from your column after Obama's win - beautiful.

Eugene Robinson: Thanks for reminding us why we're having this debate. That we put Americans in situations like the one your friend faces is to our nation's great shame. Good luck to her, and thanks again for bringing us back to reality.

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Ocean View, DE: With respect to:

"But we already know who isn't interested in health-care reform. If Republicans are really committed to bipartisanship, they can jump in."

You neglect to mention that 57% of voters opposed the Senate plan. If the so-called Obama plan is a regurgitation of the Senate plan where is the public support for this?

If Obama were truly serious about saving money on healthcare, why not include tort reform? Why not aggressively attack the fraud in Medicare? You don't need a healthcare plan to do either of those but I have yet to see any movement on either front. I think President Obama is more interested in saving face than saving money.

Eugene Robinson: The thing is that if you ask people about the various provisions of the Senate bill, they like them -- getting rid of preexisting conditions as a reason to deny coverage, for example. People may not like the size and complexity of the Senate bill or the president's proposal, but any attempt at comprehensive health reform is going to be big and complex.

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Third Rail?: Just read on internet that Pawlenty is going to run on reforming Social Security and Medicare in 2012. Mitch Daniels will probably have some reform on his agenda if he runs in 2012. Paul Ryan's budget already slashes these programs. Is this going to be the new conservative platform - getting rid of Social Security and Medicare in 2012, but keeping any Medicare cuts off table in 2010?

Eugene Robinson: It's going to be interesting to watch the Republican Party figure out just what it thinks about Medicare and Social Security these days. I don't think they know.

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"I don't think the media have kept the 60-vote barrier a secret.": I disagree. While the media doesn't keep filiburster threats and actions a secret and uses the term supermajority often, they don't define what that means very frequently and when they do, they rush over it. Not a big deal for informed people, but a recent poll showed that something like 75% of Americans didn't know it takes sixty votes to overcome a filibuster. So in general, people don't understand why 50 of the 59 Democrats can't agree on things and pass them - through filibusters and whatever else. And with that misunderstanding, how can blame them for being livid at this Congress?

Eugene Robinson: If 75 percent of Americans don't understand the 60-vote barrier in the Senate, then they aren't reading newspapers, watching television news, listening to the radio or surfing the internet. I'm happy to point out the inadequacies and failings of the media, but an enormous amount of time and effort has been devoted to explaining why a majority in the Senate isn't really a majority. People may think it makes no sense -- and they're right -- but if they don't know about it, it's not because we haven't told them.

Folks, my time is up for today. Thanks so much. I'll be away next week, so I'll see you in a fortnight.

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