The Bipartisan Divide

Obama wants to redefine bipartisanship. Will Republicans go along?

You may remember the old Folgers coffee commercial in which they replaced restaurant coffee with Folgers and diners didn’t notice the switch. A similar taste test may be happening in Washington. Administration aides are replacing the traditional definition of bipartisanship with their version in the hopes that people don’t notice but still like the result.

For the last few weeks, Obama’s aides have argued that the traditional measure of bipartisanship—counting the number of Republicans voting on a bill sponsored by a Democrat or vice versa—is too limiting. Another way to measure bipartisanship is how many ideas from the opposition party are included in a bill. So even if no actual Republicans vote for a bill, that doesn’t mean it’s a partisan product: It could still contain some amount of Republican flavoring. Another measure of bipartisanship, argues Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, is whether the president or Democrats have participated in good-faith negotiations.

The president was highlighting the first criterion today. Heralding the passage of a health care bill by the Senate committee on health, education labor, and pensions, the president noted that the bill “includes more than 160 Republican amendments—a hopeful sign of bipartisan support for the final product.” Obama also met with Senate Republicans at the White House to discuss health care, showing that, per the second criterion, he’s certainly trying to reach out.

Bipartisanship, whether in fact or in name, is worth holding on to because Obama’s promises to end the partisanship in Washington was a central appeal of his candidacy. Plus, independent voters, who have been drifting away from Obama, tend to like the concept.

White House aides have been trying to redefine bipartisanship since the stimulus bill. They felt the old definition tied their hands and led to a bad result. In order to meet Obama’s promise that the stimulus bill would be bipartisan, they had to get some Republican support. They shopped and shopped but could get only three Republicans in the Senate. Even that was a defeat relative to initial claims that Obama would get 70 votes in the Senate—and the price was very high given the provisions they traded away to court opposition support. Some Republicans, like Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, didn’t vote for the final bill even though some of his conditions had been met. Meanwhile, in the House, White House efforts resulted in not a single Republican vote.

The effort at redefinition has picked up recently because time is running out. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says that he’s going to bring health care reform to the floor by July 27. Someone should put the coffee pot on. Before the Senate can start those two weeks of debate, a lot of work has to be done. The Senate finance committee, which has not started marking up its legislation, will have to start that process almost immediately. After that’s completed, staffers will have to spend the weekend melding the finance committee bill with the other Senate bill that just passed today.

Obama has said the House and Senate must vote on their health care bills before Congress recesses in early August. With Democrats in the House and Senate balking over some provisions, there may not be enough time to get Democrats in line and convince a handful of Republicans and meet the deadline. So aides are laying the groundwork so that they can claim a party-line vote is really a bipartisan one.

There’s also a chance that this attempt at redefinition is just a ruse. Obama’s aides are threatening to pass a bill with only Democrats supporting it to frighten Republicans. If Republicans think Democrats will go it alone, the thinking goes, maybe they’ll relent in negotiations. A bill they don’t like but can shape is preferable to a potentially worse bill on which they have no say.

Democratic staffers report that Reid thinks in the end he’s likely to pick up a few Republicans, which may mean that Obama can herald a genuine bipartisan compromise without fiddling with definitions. But if that doesn’t work out, the president and his congressional allies may decide that, having tried to incorporate Republican ideas and work with Republicans, they just can’t give in anymore or waste any more time and must go their own partisan way. There’s a case to be made for that. But embracing partisanship while trying to call it bipartisan would be too much of a rhetorical stretch—even for this president who has a gift for speechmaking.

In The Audacity of Hope, then-Sen. Obama wrote: “The majority party can begin every negotiation by asking for 100 percent of what it wants, go on to concede 10 percent, and then accuse any member of the minority party who fails to support the ‘compromise’ of being ‘obstructionist.’ For the minority party in such circumstances, ‘bipartisanship’ comes to mean getting chronically steamrolled, although individual senators may enjoy certain political rewards by consistently going along with the majority and hence gaining a reputation for being ‘moderate’ or ‘centrist.’ “

There is another term for what Obama is doing that would be consistent with his previous definitions. In a 2007 interview with Frank Rich, he said: “There are some times where we need to be less bipartisan. I’m not interested in cheap bipartisanship. We should have been less bipartisan in asking tough questions about entering into this Iraq war.”

The president has made the case for health care as a national priority. If he thinks Republicans aren’t meeting the challenge of the day, then he should go his own way. That might be the right thing to do instead of engaging in “cheap bipartisanship.” But to take that route and call it bipartisan would be cheap.