There is a moment in Barack Obama’s new memoir that shows what futility looks like.
It comes during the first year of his presidency. Obama and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., spent a long and frustrating summer trying to draw the panel’s ranking Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, into serious negotiations over health care.
Again and again, they told him that they were willing to scale back Obama’s most ambitious initiative if it might bring bipartisan support. Grassley was evasive. Finally, an exasperated Obama asked him: “Are there any changes — any at all — that would get us your vote?”
After an awkward silence, Grassley told him: “I guess not, Mr. President.”
That was the point at which Obama realized that, for the Affordable Care Act to have any chance at all, they were going to have to put it over the finish line with Democratic votes alone.
President Joe Biden’s team has made clear that, given the crisis the country is in, they do not have the luxury of patience when it comes to passing some version of his $1.9 trillion pandemic rescue plan.
But at the same time, Biden doesn’t want to make the mistake that President Bill Clinton did nearly two decades before, when he was trying to pass his own version of a bill that aimed to provide universal health coverage. The 1993 bill, put together by a task force run by first lady Hillary Clinton with little input from Congress, was a complicated and heavy-handed approach that would have required employers to provide health benefits to their workers.
Clinton — to his later regret — refused to give serious consideration to a compromise offered by Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., and a bipartisan group of 20 senators. It would have gotten to the same goal by putting the responsibility for those who were not covered at work to buy insurance themselves. This “individual mandate” later became an integral part of Obamacare.
Those contrasting experiences of the past two Democratic presidents suggest that Biden is smart to pursue more than one path to getting a package that would provide economic relief to those who have been hardest hit by the covid-19 pandemic, and more resources to immunize Americans against it.
In a nearly two-hour meeting in the Oval Office on Monday night — his first in-person session as president with members of Congress — Biden conferred with 10 Republican senators who have proposed a far skimpier alternative, less than one-third the cost.
But at the same time, he has encouraged Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill to start moving forward with his package under budget rules that would allow it to pass with a simple majority in the evenly split Senate, rather than having to clear the 60-vote threshold that would be required to overcome a Republican filibuster.
That would mean it could pass with Democratic support alone, although that is not necessarily as simple as it might sound, considering the measure would have to pass muster with a caucus whose members range from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on the left to Sen. Joe Manchin, W.Va., on the right.
Republicans are howling that using the budget rules — get used to hearing the word “reconciliation” a lot in the coming weeks — would violate the calls for unity that Biden made in his inaugural address.
They seem to have developed amnesia about the many occasions on which they have used the same procedures to pass tax cuts, starting with Ronald Reagan’s in 1981 and continuing through Donald Trump’s in 2017. That same year, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also employed reconciliation rules in his unsuccessful attempt to replace the Affordable Care Act; it failed because three Republicans joined Democrats to defeat it.
Hypocrisy, however, is not reason enough to dismiss the 10 senators’ Republican alternative completely out of hand, at least as a starting point for negotiations.
The amount of money they are talking about is far short of what is needed, but the GOP package itself has some merit. It would, for instance, do a better job of targeting stimulus checks to those who need them the most — individuals earning $50,000 or less and couples making no more than $100,000. Biden’s proposal would send government payments to some families making $300,000 or more.
Biden has signaled openness to narrowing the range of people who receive stimulus checks, though the White House is still adamant that the size of those checks start at $1,400 per person, rather than the $1,000 proposed by the Republican senators.
Could they meet in the middle? The odds are stacked against it. But if good faith is ever to make a comeback, this is where it has to start.
Karen Tumulty is a Washington Post columnist covering national politics.