The time has come to find out whether all the talk of good will and bipartisanship in Washington is for real or just that ... talk.
During the president’s State of the Union address, we were treated to the positive symbolism of members of opposing parties in Congress actually taking the gigantic leap forward of sitting next to each other. Even if the lions weren’t actually lying down with the lambs, the removal of the “line down the middle” was refreshing. But whether this is actual cause for hope to the majority of Americans who say they want to see cooperation and compromise remains to be seen.
The first test of this new burst of benevolence is bearing down on Washington like a fastball. A federal district judge in Florida ruled this week elements of the health care reform act passed last year are unconstitutional, and many expect the law will ultimately end up before the Supreme Court.
The debate on what to do about health care reform promises to test the new bonds of congeniality to the max. Yet, this is a golden opportunity for both parties to demonstrate what can be done if they are willing to listen and hammer out a compromise.
The biggest thing that divides the two parties on health care is rhetoric — but don’t underestimate the power of rhetoric. It would be all too easy for both sides to make symbolic but empty gestures to their bases. For instance, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has voted to repeal “Obamacare” (appropriately and pejoratively called in the repeal bill “The Job-Killing Health Care Law,” in order to incite their loyal devotees). It did this knowing full well there will never be enough votes for repeal in the Democratic-controlled Senate and even if, by some miracle, there were, the president would veto it.
Similarly, the Senate Democrats will dig in their heels and beat back repeal of their cherished health care bill and claim victory to their ideological minions. The Republicans would then return fire by trying to prevent implementation of the reforms by withholding funding through the House Appropriations Committee.
Both sides can claim a moral victory and be able to say they kept faith with their base voters — but the all-too-predictable result will be that nothing gets done. What a lost opportunity to show the American people as a whole what can be accomplished when cooler and wiser heads prevail.
The possibilities for compromise are there. The polls say that a large majority of Americans, whether insured or uninsured, have very real fears about the cost of a long and debilitating illness to them and their families. There are also major concerns over the termination of coverage and denial of benefits. Both sides agree on the need for health care reform.
Before the health care bill was passed last year, President Barack Obama pointed out a whole list of reforms that both Republicans and Democrats supported. For example, both parties agree that the health care industry should refocus much of its efforts on prevention. Both parties agree on creating a new marketplace where small businesses, families and individuals can pool together to obtain coverage or lower their rates. Both agree that the industry needs to get aggressive in eliminating waste and fighting fraud and abuse.
And these are just a few points of agreement. During the State of the Union address, the president even put one of the Republicans’ key reforms on the table — one that was left out of last year’s bill: malpractice lawsuit reform.
The seeds are all there to pass a retooled, bipartisan reform that both parties can take credit for and that will benefit all Americans. As the debate rages, we will see whether our two major political parties have taken to heart Abraham Lincoln’s biblical warning that, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Uniting on a compromise health care reform bill would send a great message that it’s more than just talk.
• Dawidziak is a columnist for Newsday, political consultant and pollster.
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