April 25, 2014

Rahm, Reconciliation, and Health Care Reform

Noam Scheiber has a new Rahm profile in The New Republic, which is replete with all the standard tropes: potty-mouth, missing middle finger, supposed omnipotent control in the White House, etc.  All that aside, it’s a much more nuanced take on his role in the Administration than recent pieces in the Washington Post by Jason Horowitz and Dana Milbank, which try to paint Rahm’s less-is-more approach as the sensible alternative to anything comprehensive.

Schieber points out that Rahm was in favor of fast action on financial regulatory reform:

But, while Emanuel has long been skeptical of the political merits of a robust liberalism, the problem with the broader ideological critique is that it’s at odds with some of his behavior. As early as the transition, according to several administration officials, Emanuel was adamant that reform of the financial sector proceed immediately. He insisted it simply wasn’t politically viable to pump hundreds of billions of dollars into the banks without showing voters that they wouldn’t have to ante up all over again a few years hence. Geithner objected that fast-tracking reform would only create more uncertainty and could paralyze the financial system. And there were legitimate considerations on both sides. But, suffice it to say, no one out to coddle the banks would have taken Emanuel’s position.

On health care reform, Rahm worked ceaselessly and apparently urged wrapping up Baucus’ Senate Finance Committee negotiations with Republicans, which stalled the process last summer:

So Emanuel placed a premium on speed. He nagged constantly, setting numerous deadlines: for discussions to conclude, for congressional committees to act, for floor votes to be held. He explored a variety of procedural and substantive options so that progress could never be halted. “He never wanted to have a moment where we didn’t have a move,” says one colleague.

For the first half of last year, this was almost all you needed to know about the administration’s strategy. Then, in July, the White House faced a key decision. Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, probably the most important of the five committees considering health care, had spent months negotiating with his Republican counterpart, Chuck Grassley, with little to show for it. Emanuel was getting antsy. He gathered his top aides and pressed for a way to hurry the process along. The Senate labor committee had produced its own health care bill. Perhaps, Emanuel wondered, Majority Leader Harry Reid could bypass Baucus and bring it to the floor. Or maybe Baucus could just stop bargaining with Grassley and let Reid move a more partisan version of his bill.

But, in the end, Obama himself favored letting Baucus negotiate until September. (Though Axelrod stresses that the president was “just as impatient as Rahm was to get moving.”)

If more pressure had been exerted on Baucus during the summer of 2009, Obama likely would have already signed a comprehensive health care bill.

Elizabeth Drew’s excellent article in the New York Review of Books nicely recalls the moment:

Republicans had applied the theory that the longer a bill is delayed, the weaker it becomes. Their real goal was to kill it. They gave Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus just enough encouragement that he engaged in a months-long effort to get Republican backing for the bill. The idea, shared by the White House, was that a bill with bipartisan support would have more legitimacy with the public; but the negotiations kept going long after it was clear that the Republicans didn’t want to help. (He got the vote in committee of Maine’s Olympia Snowe, who made a big show of her reluctance to give it—the diva who wouldn’t leave the stage—and then voted against the bill on the Senate floor.) Finally, even the White House gave up on Baucus and scheduled Obama’s speech to Congress on health care on September 9, to encourage his committee to wrap it up. By the time the Senate finally passed its bill on Christmas Eve, Coakley was losing altitude, but no one seemed to notice.

In the end, both Obama and Rahm will be vindicated.  Now that Democrats have finally realized that their only way forward is through reconciliation, comprehensive reform will likely pass sometime in the next month or so.  When it does, Obama’s decision to ignore Rahm’s advice to scale-back will be vindicated.  And the fact that final passage will likely take place in March or April of 2010 will vindicate Rahm’s advice to bypass Baucus.