Infrastructure Talks Recall Heated Debate Over Obama Healthcare

Once again, a bipartisan group of senators is seeking to bridge a deep policy divide, but the lesson of failed negotiations on the Affordable Care Act has left Democrats skeptical about an infrastructure deal.

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WASHINGTON — The heated summer of hostile town hall events and death-panel scare tactics was bleeding into the fall of 2009, and still, bipartisan negotiations over what would become the Affordable Care Act dragged on.

Republicans kept lodging new objections to President Barack Obama’s plan even as he delivered ultimatums and gave speeches applying political pressure. In the end, only one Republican, Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, supported a version of the health bill in a crucial committee vote — and then even she opposed final passage once it reached the floor.

As President Biden pushes for an elusive bipartisan compromise this summer on a major infrastructure bill, those extended and fruitless talks on a health care deal loom as a cautionary tale. With a fish-or-cut-bait moment approaching as soon as next week, unpublished interviews from a 2014 New York Times oral history of the health law show why Democratic leaders who lived through 2009 are not eager to let talks drag out much longer.

“There was some sliver of hope that it would be bipartisan,” Peter R. Orszag, the White House budget director during health care negotiations, recalled in 2014. “But as time evolved from the transition during late 2008 to the summer of 2009, it became increasingly obvious that any such hopes were only hopes and not going to be reality.”

Infrastructure should be far easier than health care, which carries emotional undercurrents, life-or-death implications and the tendency to play one group against others. Support for a scenic highway in Montana could be easily bought with money for mass transit in Manhattan, and in the not-too-distant past, bipartisan bills to build roads, bridges, tunnels and subways have sailed through Congress on huge votes.

“Everything in health care, everything is a real trade-off and a zero-sum game. In infrastructure, you just add another bridge,” said Jonathan Selib, who was chief of staff to Max Baucus, the Democratic Finance Committee chairman during the Affordable Care Act negotiations.

But in Washington these days, nothing is easy. Republicans and Democrats cannot even agree on a common definition of infrastructure, much less a consensus about how much federal money to invest and how it should be paid for.

Talks continued this week between Mr. Biden and Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Republican of West Virginia, with Republicans on Friday inching up by $50 billion the amount of money they may be willing to spend.

But Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said Friday afternoon that the latest Republican offer was still not enough to “meet his objectives to grow the economy, tackle the climate crisis and create new jobs.” They agreed to meet again on Monday, a decision that led some Democrats to groan.

“This is 2009 and health care all over again,” said Adam Jentleson, who was an aide to Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader that year.

But efforts to find a bipartisan path forward continue to flounder.

“Partisan politics are worse now than back in the days of the A.C.A.,” Mr. Baucus said this week, “and they were plenty partisan then.”

The template for today’s infrastructure stalemate was set in 2009. Then as now, a small group of senators, Democratic and Republican, were empowered to seek a deal.

“It was going to be done in a bipartisan way, with a goal of doing like you do other social programs in the United States, like civil rights and Medicare and Medicaid — they all pass with wide bipartisan majorities,” Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, who was then the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, said in a 2014 interview.

Then as now, if no compromise could be reached, Democrats needed every single senator in their party to push through a bill. That meant holding all 60 together in 2009 to beat a Republican filibuster; today, Democrats need all 50 of their members to use a budget maneuver called reconciliation to steer clear of a filibuster and pass legislation with a simple majority.

“The reality was there were moderate Democrats who were very uneasy about doing health care, period, and certainly about doing it in a partisan way,” Mr. Selib said this week. “The only way to go 60-for-60 was to show Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln and Evan Bayh that we were going to do everything to make it bipartisan, that we were not going to leave anything on the field.”

Mr. Nelson, a conservative Nebraskan, and Ms. Lincoln, an embattled Arkansan, are long gone, but today, Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona need the same assuaging.

Then as now, some in both parties did not want any kind of deal, either because they hoped to thwart a new president or hoped to avoid the necessary compromise.

“I had a fair number of people who told me I was being disloyal to my party, people who told me that I didn’t get it, that you could not work with the other side,” said Kent Conrad, then a Democratic senator of North Dakota. “And look, I’m not naive. I recognized then and now that there are some in the other party whose really only objective was to bring President Obama’s administration down.”

Mr. Biden and his team have kept the lessons of 2009 top of mind in drafting and trying to pass his initial economic agenda. The president cheered Democrats this year by proposing a $1.9 trillion economic rescue package that dwarfed the size of the stimulus Mr. Obama pushed through Congress after the 2008 financial crisis.

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President Barack Obama promoting a health care overhaul at the White House in 2009.Credit…Luke Sharrett/The New York Times

Mr. Biden briefly held talks with Republicans, but quickly rejected their offer of just over $600 billion as insufficient to meet the economy’s needs. Democrats then raced Mr. Biden’s plan through Congress, largely intact, via reconciliation.

But administration officials have not displayed the same willingness to quickly discard bipartisanship in their infrastructure discussions, even though Republicans are again countering Mr. Biden’s plans with a much less expensive alternative. That is in part because Democratic moderates are insisting that the avenues of compromise be exhausted before another party-line vote, and partly because the president still sees a bipartisan deal as attainable and important.

Republicans have said for years that they support increased federal infrastructure spending, following the lead of Donald J. Trump, who spoke expansively of it but never followed through.

But liberal activists and many congressional Democrats have pushed the White House to once again abandon talks and return to the reconciliation process. The lessons of health care loom large in their minds.

“It’s clear to me in retrospect Republicans saw this is a big wedge issue that they were going to run against,” Mr. Baucus said Wednesday.

Few could fault the so-called Gang of Six — the Republican senators Mr. Grassley, Ms. Snowe and Mike Enzi of Wyoming, and the Democrats Mr. Baucus, Mr. Conrad and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico — for trying, from late 2008 to the fall of 2009.

“We met 31 times over the course of those months,” Ms. Snowe said in 2014. Mr. Grassley added, “You can never say that anybody’s not negotiating in good faith who put that much time into something.”

The disputes were substantive, over the constitutionality and wisdom of mandating the purchase of health care, the size of subsidies to purchase policies, the tax increases to pay for the spending, and the position of small businesses in the sprawling bill.

But the demise of bipartisanship came from partisan passions at the grass roots, and those tribal passions have never really abated. Town-hall-style meetings in the summer of 2009 sometimes resembled festivals of rage.

Mr. Conrad remembered the police telling his staff that someone had threatened the senator, but because he had no license plate, they had lost his trail. For Mr. Grassley, the moment came in Pella, Iowa, that summer, when the rage boiled over.

“I never had that sort of anger,” he said. “You kind of got the feeling that people were waking up.”

The senators returned from their August recess and went back to talking, even as the anger on the right and the frustration on the left was pulling them apart. Mr. Grassley recalled one last meeting in September that felt like an ultimatum.

“I definitely remember a question from the president to me: Would I be willing to be in a group of two or three Republicans to go along and make a bipartisan bill? And I immediately said no,” Mr. Grassley said. “I said two or three Republicans does not make a bipartisan bill.”

Ms. Snowe soldiered on as the last potential convert, voting the Affordable Care Act out of committee to keep the process going, but as impatience grew at the White House and with Democratic leaders, she, too, knew the talks had failed. She produced one last list of 21 changes she still needed, then broke away, said Bob Kocher, a White House health aide at the time.

“It was a lot of pressure at the time, you know, to terminate these discussions and move forward,” Ms. Snowe remembered. “The original deadline was the beginning of July, and then another deadline was by August.”

“I said it shouldn’t be about beating the clock, it should be about getting it right,” she continued.

By then, the Tea Party was in full swing, populist anger over Wall Street bailouts was swelling as the Great Recession ground on, and politics were changing — perhaps for good. Democrats pressing to end infrastructure negotiations and move forward quickly are mindful of how misinformation, anger and division swirl around legislation stuck in an eddy.

“The president himself started to get anxious about the calendar and the toxicity of the overall environment in Washington and realized well we really don’t have time to have a Gang of Six or any committee spending months and months and months on the legislation,” said Michael Myers, who was staff director of the Senate Health Committee. He added, “Time was not our friend.”

Jim Tankersley and Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.

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