The Speaker’s Lobby: Health Care Cold War

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

25 February 2010

Perhaps it’s only appropriate that today’s big health care meeting at the White House is being called a “summit.”

After all, Democrats and Republicans are frozen in a health care Cold War.

The President of the United States and General Secretary of the Soviet Union huddled on 20 different occasions during the Cold War. They met in Washington, Moscow, Geneva Reykjavik, Helsinki and Paris. The sessions launched in 1955 with Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev. George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev concluded the series in 1991. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R had to powwow. Both nations were armed to the teeth with thousands of intercontinental ballistic missiles aimed at each other. Many were studded with thermonuclear warheads.

As a result of these summits, the respective leaders inked the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) and other accords.

When the leaders of the two most powerful nations on Earth got together, the media dubbed these confabs “summits.” After all, the only thing at stake was averting mutually-assured destruction.

Which is similar to the health care state of play.

Democrats and Republicans are waging a health care Cold War. Neither trusts the other. Both boast a political nuclear arsenal, prepared to annihilate the other. And like the outcome of a hypothetical American-Soviet nuclear volley, this battle is a zero-sum game.

It’s a zero-sum game because the health care summit is fraught with risk for both sides. The health bill is imperiled. Democrats need to salvage it to redeem themselves among their base. And Republicans want to quash the legislation. Meantime, scores of independent voters are fed up with both parties. And unless there’s détente, voters in the middle could abandon both parties.

First of all, the weapons in the Republican stockpile.

The GOP feels it has Democrats on the ropes. The popularity of the health care reform bill is sagging. Republicans believe the public is exasperated with the Democrats’ legislative agenda and isn’t focused on the economy. As a result, Republicans are anticipating significant gains in the House and Senate this fall.

But Republicans are leery of this summit. Some suggested it’s a trap laid by the Democrats, hoping the GOP would decline the invitation. Republicans are trying to erase the “party of no” handle. And rejecting an invitation from the President of the United States is gauche.

“When you get an invite you have an obligation to go,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH).

Still, the GOP doesn’t want to. It saw how President Obama commanded the stage at the House Republican retreat last month. Sources said the House GOP braintrust feared that some lawmakers might leave their Emily Post manners at home and become combative with the president. There’s always a risk that some exchanges could elicit a “Cuban Missile Crisis” moment. During an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council in 1962, American Ambassador Adlai Stevenson browbeat Soviet representative Valerian Zorin. Stevenson asked Zorin if the Soviets were placing weapons in Cuba. He then demanded “Don’t wait for the translation, answer ‘yes’ or ‘no.’” Stevenson snorted he was “prepared to wait for my answer until Hell freezes over.”

Stevenson’s jab at Zorin epitomized the tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. And a testy moment could crystallize the health summit.

A verbal rhubarb with the president of the opposite party might energize the base. But it may also turn off voters they’re trying to court. Secondly, no one ever looks good after televised fisticuffs with the President of the United States.

The health care summit is a risky gambit for Democrats, too. Since last summer, Congressional Democrats have exhausted innumerable cubic feet of political oxygen on an issue that they can’t seem to concoct the votes for. Particularly after the election of Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) and the resignation or death of several House members who supported the health bill last fall. But the more time they spend on health care means less time on the economy. And even though the Senate approved a $15 billion jobs bill Wednesday, health care reform is a news vampire. It sucks away all attention from any efforts to heal the economy.

Democrats are struggling to concisely articulate the goal of their measure. A long-winded jawboning session could get “wonky,” with arcane debates about taxes, Congressional procedures and medical terminology. The discussion may be televised. But it will be hard for onerous chatter to secure the support of many viewers.

An interesting element to watch during the meeting are exchanges with some of the lawmakers tapped to attend the forum.

For instance, Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) is one of four “wild card” members asked to attend by the House GOP leadership squad. Roskam and President Obama served together in the Illinois legislature. One of the other wild cards is Rep. Charles Boustany (R-LA). A former surgeon, the GOP selected Boustany to deliver the response to Mr. Obama’s health care speech before a Joint Session of Congress. But unfortunately for Boustany, few recall what he said as any of his made-for-TV remarks were drowned-out by the “You lie!” outburst from Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC). Many suggested that it was Wilson and not Boustany who truly gave the Republican response that night.

On the Democratic side, take note of Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN). A “Blue Dog” Democrat, Cooper watches the fiscal line and has had differences with the Obama Administration before. House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-CA) also bears watching. Becerra has the ear of the most-liberal blocs in the House. Many House liberals fear the bill won’t go far enough. It’s possible that Becerra could argue on behalf of those lawmakers.

And one of the most interesting elements is who’s not there today.

President Obama did not invite Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) to the summit. Stupak is the author of the “Stupak Amendment” that the House adopted. It bans using federal money to cover abortions in health plans.” Mr. Obama didn’t request Stupak’s attendance. But John Boehner wrote to the president, urging him to add Stupak to the guest list. Boehner said that Stupak “should be there because he has been the leader on” the abortion issue.

For his part, Stupak was dubious about the summit.

“I don’t need a seat at the table,” he said, noting that his amendment will be “front and center” at the discussion.

Stupak added that “having a tough issue like this doesn’t encourage frank discussions.”

So like the Cold War, Democrats and Republicans are locked in an epic struggle. And like the nearly two-dozen summits between the U.S. and Soviet Union, it’s unlikely today’s meeting will produce any breakthroughs.

But the summits of Kennedy and Khrushchev, Nixon and Brezhnev, Reagan and Gorbachev, weren’t really about solving an issue. They were about building trust. And making sure the sides don’t destroy each other.

As they said during the Cold War, doveryai, no proveryai.

Trust, but verify.

– Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

– The Speaker’s Lobby refers to a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.