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Which lawmakers can, and can't, play the health-care game

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi whispers to Rep. Barney Frank.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi whispers to Rep. Barney Frank. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/associated Press)
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Friday, December 18, 2009

As the attempt to pass meaningful health-care reform stumbles oafishly toward home plate, having missed a base or two along the way, it's hard not to repeat Casey Stengel's famous lament about the hapless 1962 Mets: "You look up and down the bench and you have to say to yourself, 'Can't anybody here play this game?' "

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The answer is that some can and some can't.

Nancy Pelosi can play. Faced with adamantine opposition from Republicans, take-no-prisoners exhortations from progressives and foot-dragging equivocation from nervous Blue Dogs, the speaker still managed to get a bill out of the House that included almost everything President Obama wanted, including a public health insurance option.

It always amuses me to hear people call Pelosi a "San Francisco liberal," because while the description is objectively true, it suggests a certain delicacy of sensibility. In fact, Pelosi was born and raised in the bare-knuckles world of big-city machine politics -- her father was Tommy D'Alesandro, a legendary Baltimore mayor. She knows how to count votes and how to keep them counted.

Pelosi also knows how and when to exercise her many prerogatives. We saw an illustration on Wednesday, when she brought to the floor several hot-button measures: a hike in the debt ceiling, a defense bill laden with baggage such as an extension of unemployment benefits, and a $154 billion new stimulus package funded with unused financial-bailout money. Normally, each of these would have sparked a huge fight -- but not on the last day before recess, when everyone was rushing to get out of town. That's the way stuff gets done.

The Republican leaders in the House and the Senate can play, too. At this point, 11 months since Obama took office, it's striking how successful Republicans have been in presenting a united front against virtually everything the president and the Democratic congressional majorities are trying to do.

I have my doubts about this strategy in the long run. I'm convinced that while the Republicans may be doing the Democrats considerable political harm, they're not doing themselves much political good. Specifically on health-care reform, solid Republican opposition has succeeded in raising doubt about the Democrats' proposals. But voters aren't convinced that the system is just fine the way it is, and that's what the Republicans are perceived to be arguing.

In the short term, however, Republican unity has forced Senate Democrats into the position of not being able to get anything done without hanging on to every single one of their 60 votes. This means that any member of the Democratic caucus can hold health-care legislation hostage by making extortionate demands.

Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and, especially, Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent, know how to play. Dorgan and Landrieu have been extracting concessions for the folks back home. Nelson has the Senate in knots over abortion. And Lieberman has managed to make himself, for now, the key player in the whole debate.

Lieberman didn't want a public option to be included in the Senate bill, and it's out. He decided he didn't like the idea of letting those 55 and older buy their way into the Medicare program -- even though he has specifically endorsed the idea in the past -- and so that's out, too. At this point, he almost seems to be making demands just because he can.

Who can't play this game? You have to point the finger at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Granted, he's in a nearly impossible position, needing a three-fifths majority to get anything done, but he has made a bad situation worse. He announced that the Senate bill would include a public option, but didn't have the votes. He got everyone excited about the Medicare buy-in idea for a few days, until it got shot down. And his remarks comparing the health-care debate to the epic battle over slavery were a grotesque embarrassment.

What about President Obama and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel? I think of another Stengel aphorism: "The secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided." The White House hasn't managed to drive a deep enough wedge between the Senate Republicans, who aren't going to vote for reform under any circumstances, and the Democratic caucus. The waverers and the opportunists have been allowed to take control.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com



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