Watching Barack Obama trying to push members of Congress toward some kind of agreement on a health care bill gives you a new appreciation for why Hillary Clinton decided to just write the whole thing herself and dump it on them.
Every inch has been torture. The president spent an hour the other day with seven fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee who weren’t happy with their leadership’s legislation. Then he turned them over to the entire White House health care team, which sat down with the Dogs and negotiated a plan to create an independent commission to set Medicare rates.
This cost-containment commission now appears to be a centerpiece of the administration’s health care goals. I am a positive person, so I like to believe that this was not sheer desperation but rather the slow rolling out of an incredibly subtle plan to trick Congress into thinking it’s calling the shots.
Meanwhile in the Senate, everyone is waiting on Max Baucus of Montana. Nothing is going to happen on health care without the approval of Baucus, whose vast authority stems from the fact that he speaks for both the Senate Finance Committee and a state that contains three-tenths of one percent of the country’s population.
Baucus wants a bill that has bipartisan appeal. The Republicans who are eager to work with him on this include the Finance Committee’s minority leader and every single senator from Maine. The rest appear closer to Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who recently urged his fellow party members to dig in their heels and create a Waterloo for the president. “It would break him,” DeMint added appealingly.
DeMint is an increasingly influential voice in the Republican Party, and he is now regarded as a potential Republican presidential nominee in 2012. This is partly because of his new book, “Saving Freedom: We Can Stop America’s Slide Into Socialism,” and partly because almost all the other potential Republican presidential nominees have been sidetracked by lively sex scandals. At present, DeMint does not seem to have a sex scandal, although if he ever comes up with one, I promise to remind you that in his last campaign he said that openly gay people and unwed pregnant women should not be allowed to teach in public schools.
But we digress. The point here is that neither rain nor snow nor Jim DeMint will deter Obama from delivering on health care. Not even if he has to meet with every member of Congress one by one, give an interview to every television reporter in the Northern Hemisphere and hold a press conference every single day for the rest of the year.
Earlier this week, the White House’s hopes for success were lifted when the Senate voted 58 to 40 to stop financing the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jet. Not only did this create a savings of $1.75 billion, it demonstrated, the administration felt, that Congress really could step up to the plate.
This was a huge, huge victory. Everybody pulled out all the stops to give wavering senators the spine to take a stand. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made a big we-are-at-the-crossroads speech in Chicago, telling the nation that if the F-22 stayed in the budget, all hope of sane procurement practices was lost forever.
The president threatened to veto the entire $664 billion defense appropriations bill if there were F-22s in it. Vice President Joe Biden was on the phone talking and talking and talking. Rahm Emanuel was threatening to bite people on the leg — it was terrible, seeing those swing votes limping down the halls with the White House chief of staff gnawing at their ankles.
And they won! Who says the Senate can’t make the hard choices?
Of course, the F-22 had been totally outmoded since the collapse of the Soviet empire. We’ve been through two wars without ever finding any use for it. We’ve already got 187 of them sitting around, available should the Soviet Union reconstitute itself tomorrow and send its pilots into our airspace for a stealthy dogfight.
The last two presidents, the last two joint chiefs of staff, and apparently every secretary of defense going back to John C. Calhoun have decried the F-22 as a stupendous waste of money. And, of course, the Pentagon has already come up with another fighter plane, the F-35 Lightning, that it vows to spend a quadrillion dollars on instead, even though its nickname is not nearly so cool as the Raptor’s.
Still. Today a 30-year-old piece of $1.75 billion pork. Tomorrow the world.
Meanwhile, the leader of the Blue Dog rebels in the House called the big cost-containment victory a “small breakthrough” and noted that he and his six fellow Dogs had nine more big problems they wanted to discuss with the White House.