The new Democratic U.S. president was desperate for a bipartisan deal. His party controlled Congress, but he was wary of using that majority to jam through what would become his signature policy achievement.
So began his courtship of a Republican senator from Maine.
“Tell Olympia she can write the whole damn bill!” President Barack Obama told his deputy chief of staff for policy Nancy-Ann DeParle, according to Obama’s memoir “A Promised Land.” “We’ll call it the Snowe plan. Tell her if she votes for the bill, she can have the White House. Michelle and I will move to an apartment.”
The Obamas never moved to an apartment. The bill was never named after Olympia Snowe, then a Republican U.S. senator from Maine. Instead it was dubbed derisively by Republicans as “Obamacare” and it passed on a party-line vote in 2010 after Snowe and every other member of the GOP voted against it.
Snowe, for her part, never blamed Obama for failing to convince her to vote for the Affordable Care Act. In her memoir, “Fighting for Common Ground,” she assigned the blame to Democratic leaders who didn’t make her requested changes.
Obama had a different explanation.
He wrote that Snowe cared deeply about health care, “but the Republican Party’s sharp rightward turn had left her increasingly isolated within her own caucus, making her even more cautious than usual, prone to wrapping her indecision in the guise of digging into policy minutiae.”
The retelling of the ACA negotiations has a particular salience now as President Joe Biden pushes for passage of his $1.9 trillion COVID relief plan while seeking Republican support from another U.S. senator for Maine, Republican Susan Collins. Collins made headlines this week after she and nine other Republicans met with Biden in the Oval Office to discuss a Republican-led relief counterproposal worth about a third of the president’s plan.
“In the coming days, talks among our group, the Biden Administration, and other Senators will continue as we work in good faith on a sixth bipartisan package to help struggling families, get students back to school, assist our small businesses and their employees, provide relief for health care providers, and accelerate testing and vaccine programs,” Collins said in a statement this week.
But Democrats aren’t taking any chances. They’ve initiated what’s known as reconciliation, a parliamentary maneuver that allows them to avoid the filibuster while passing Biden’s plan on straight party-line vote. Spurring this approach is Democrats’ unwillingness to get bogged down by what some of them view as the mirage of Republican support or compromises that could sabotage the efficacy of Biden’s COVID proposal.
Much of this view is informed by Obama’s experience, which was widely criticized by Democrats as a quixotic attempt to craft bipartisan agreements while GOP members of Congress plotted to oppose everything he proposed.
His efforts to woo Snowe on the ACA are just part of that history. Another is the recession stimulus bill that Obama and Democrats agreed to trim in order to obtain votes from Snowe, Collins and other Republicans.
The decision to add a bipartisan veneer to the 2009 stimulus bill has since been blamed by Democrats for failing to adequately juice the sagging economy and for keeping unemployment hovering around 10%, thus prolonging an economic malaise that fueled the 2010 red wave election that wiped out the Democratic majority in the U.S. House and the Senate in 2014.
“We cannot repeat the mistake of 2009, and we must act very soon to get this assistance to those so desperately in need,” Schumer said this week.
While the lessons-learned narrative has dominated the national media, the comparisons to then and now might not be completely analogous, at least in terms of the political landscape. For starters, the GOP’s plan to return to austerity and concerns about the national deficit to counter the Biden administration might not be as effective as it was during the Obama presidency, especially on the heels of a GOP tax cut law that will add an estimated $11.7 trillion to the deficit through 2027, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Additionally, there are provisions in Biden’s COVID relief plan that are popular with what now constitutes the Republican base , specifically direct payments to families that former President Donald Trump pushed for in December — arguably two months too late for his sake — and that Biden has also promised.
Those factors alone may not yield a bipartisan compromise. But proposals like Utah Sen. Mitt Romney’s to expand child benefits and closely mirror Biden’s plan could help erode suspicions among some Democrats that some Republicans are merely feigning interest in a deal.
How Collins will factor in such agreement, if there is one, remains to be seen. But it appears unlikely that Biden will go to the same lengths to persuade her that Obama did with Snowe.
Golden breaks ranks
Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives began the budget reconciliation process this week to begin the partisan push to enact Biden’s COVID plan.
They did it without Democratic 2nd District U.S. Rep. Jared Golden’s vote.
Golden was one of two Democrats to oppose the process. He argued that the Congress should decouple money for COVID-19 vaccination distribution from the overall relief bill.
“Any delay in ramping up vaccinations should be unacceptable to a president who seeks to prove that his administration can effectively govern the nation through this crisis, and it should be morally unacceptable to members of Congress whose constituents remain at risk each day,” Golden said in a statement.
Golden also questioned why Democratic leaders were leaving vaccine funding in the relief bill.
“If vaccine funding were given a vote today, it would pass with resounding support and could be on the president’s desk by the end of the day. Why wait?” he said. “Are leaders holding vaccine funding hostage now out of fear they won’t otherwise have the votes for reconciliation? Whatever their reasoning, I will not support this week’s procedural votes to begin the budget reconciliation process unless the vaccine funds are fast-tracked.”
Golden also argued that the reconciliation process can take a long time. A 2016 report from the Congressional Research Service found that the reconciliation measures passed between 1980 and 2015 had a wide variance in the number of days it took to pass them. The low was 27 days. The high was 384 days.
It took about 50 days for Republicans to use reconciliation to pass their 2017 tax cut law.
That’s not quite as fast as the GOP had hoped, but it was better than never given Democrats’ near unanimous opposition to the plan and its certain defeat in the Senate if Republicans hadn’t used reconciliation at all.
Early endorsement for Mills
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills hasn’t said whether she’s running for reelection in 2022, but she already has an endorsement from a EMILY’s List, a national group backing pro-choice women candidates.
The endorsement of Mills isn’t a surprise given the EMILY’s List’s endorsement of her during the 2018 gubernatorial primary. The group spent heavily — and late — in that primary, providing Mills a boost by attacking her leading challenger Adam Cote in the final days of the primary election.
EMILY’s List also helped former U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon box-out her cash-strapped Democratic challengers in 2019 with an early endorsement.
It’s unclear whether that was the intent with EMILY’s List’s early backing of Mills, but given the organization’s prolific spending to support its preferred candidates it could have a similar effect on anyone thinking about challenging Mills in a Democratic primary.
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