When Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus slammed down his gavel, passing health-care reform through his committee on a 14-9 vote, he made history.
For the first time since Teddy Roosevelt first called for national health care in 1912, Congress is poised to put fundamental health reform on the floor of both the House and the Senate. Baucus’ bill, while far from a progressive’s dream, covers 94 percent of Americans while reducing the deficit. Not bad. No, it doesn’t contain the public option which I (and a solid majority of Americans, according to polls) think is vital. But it’s not a small step toward universal coverage—it’s a giant leap.
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) has wisely decided to support the Baucus bill. She rightly notes that it would be a vast improvement on the status quo. What’s left unstated is that her support for reform in the Finance Committee enhances her leverage. Contrast how Snowe has handled herself with the senior Republican on the committee, Iowa’s Charles Grassley. Baucus did everything he could to bring Grassley along—and his bipartisan outreach was repaid with partisan outrage as Grandpa Twitter tweeted about how the bill would “pull the plug on Grandma.”
When Snowe retires, I will want my grandchildren to know that there was once such a creature: at first numerous, then endangered and then hunted to extinction.
Snowe, on the other hand, maximized her clout. She will be a force to be reckoned with for the remainder of the process, while Grassley fades away like Ray Liotta in Field of Dreams.
So this is what passes for bipartisanship these days. In 1994, three Republicans on the Finance Committee supported Pres. Clinton’s reforms: Sens. John Chafee of Rhode Island, John Danforth of Missouri, and Dave Durenberger of Minnesota. Now we’re down to one. One last rational, reasonable, moderate Republican. But that one may just be enough to make history. And when Sen. Snowe retires, we ought to ask Madame Toussoud to make a wax model of her that we can put in the Smithsonian. I will want my grandchildren to know that there was once such a creature: at first numerous, then endangered, and then hunted to extinction.
As the Finance Committee was taking up the bill, one member of the Obama administration working on health care told me, “Just get this bill through Finance. That’s the toughest hurdle. If we can do that, we’ve got lots of running room.” With Sen. Snowe’s help, Sen. Baucus has done that. How far they can run will depend on the courage of the Democrats, who now seem emboldened, as well as Snowe. By breaking with the party of Beck & Limbaugh (and how pissed must Rush be that Glenn now merits top billing?), Snowe has made herself a target. If strategic thinkers in the GOP have their way, they will treat Snowe with kid gloves. But I’m guessing that the radical right is in charge, and they will savage Snowe, further driving her toward her more rational colleagues in the Democratic Party.
• Matthew Yglesias: Why Republicans Should Accept This Bill• A Short History of Health-Care DisastersAlready today, Limbaugh was dismissive of Snowe. Affecting a heavy lisp and declaring it “the voice of the new castrati, those who have lost all manhood, gonads, guts, and courage” (available from Media Matters here), Limbaugh mocked the notion of bipartisanship. Sadly, Rush has a point: Bipartisanship is very nearly dead, resuscitated at the last second by Sen. Snowe. But Rush is, as ever, wrong about the big picture. Happily, it is not the left wing that has been neutered. It’s the right. And Olympia Snowe was the one wielding the scalpel.
It won’t be easy and it won’t be pretty. It may take all the way until New Year’s Eve, but Barack Obama is going to sign fundamental health reform. And Mr. Limbaugh and Mr. Beck will be powerless to do anything other than vent the rage of the impotent—and hope that Viagra is covered under the new health-care law.
Paul Begala is a CNN political contributor and a research professor at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute. He was a senior strategist for the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign and served as counselor to President Clinton in the White House.