Obama Asks Congress to Give Reform Another Shot

Last Updated Jan 27, 2010 11:43 PM EST

Despite President Obama's renewed plea in his State of the Union Address tonight to transcend partisanship in the public interest, it is stronger than ever in Washington. And if truth is the first casualty of political war, healthcare reform is likely to be the second victim in this session of Congress.

The President, who devoted most of his speech to jobs and the economy, spent only a few minutes on what has been the signature initiative of his first year in office. After noting that the pending legislation would greatly expand coverage, prevent people from being denied insurance because of their health status, and reduce the deficit by $1 trillion over the next 20 years, Obama begged Congress to take a second look at the bill after the current flap over the election of the 41st Republican Senator has cooled down.

"Do not walk away from reform," Obama begged the assembled politicians. "Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people. Let's get it done. Let's get it done."

Unfortunately, the political war being waged by the two parties stands in the way of that happening. In fact, it was the election of Scott Brown, the new Republican senator from Massachusetts, that reignited that warfare. The official Republican response to the President's speech left no doubt where the party stands on reform. While everyone wants accessible, affordable healthcare, said Bob McDonnell, the newly elected governor of Virginia, "most Americans don't want to turn over the best medical care system in the world to the government."

Obama clearly realizes that the Republicans have no intention of responding to his arguments. When he challenged them in his speech to come up with a better alternative, he knew that they would just trot out their tired old talking points about tort reform and selling insurance across state lines, just as McDonnell did. And when he asked partisans on both sides of the aisle to compromise for the public good, he also must have known that he was whistling in the wind. So what was his point?

Perhaps he just wanted to convince the American people that he was not going to give up on healthcare. That is also the tune that other Democratic leaders are singing. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's latest gambit offers little hope in this regard. Since she doesn't have the votes in the House to pass the Senate bill, even if it's improved in separate legislation, she is now talking about pulling adoptable portions of the bill out and voting on them separately. For example, there's a good chance that a measure rescinding the insurance companies' antitrust exemption could pass both houses of Congress. Unfortunately, it would do zip to advance the cause of affordable, universal healthcare. Farther down the line, Pelosi suggests, Congress could tackle the more sweeping legislation before it. But when is that supposed to happen? After a lot of Democrats lose their seats next November?

Once again, it seems, partisan warfare in Washington has sunk the hope that Americans might have the same healthcare security that citizens of every advanced country in the world take for granted. When will we ever learn?

  • Ken Terry

    Ken Terry, a former senior editor at Medical Economics Magazine, is the author of the book Rx For Health Care Reform.