By John Whitesides - Analysis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With friends like these, President Barack Obama may not need enemies.
Obama’s hopes for passing an initial version of healthcare reform by August are dead in the Senate and on life support in the House of Representatives -- and his fellow Democrats played a big role in their demise.
A House group of Democratic fiscal conservatives put the brakes for now on Obama’s top domestic priority in a fight over how to curb rising costs, sparking a sharp and highly visible party feud on Friday.
In the Senate, a key Democrat said on Sunday there are still not enough Democratic votes to ensure passage and more closed-door negotiations will be needed to woo support from at least a few Republicans.
Both chambers of Congress have big Democratic majorities, but Obama has learned that is not enough.
“A big majority is a diverse majority, and Democrats do not have the ideological homogeneity to just march in lock step with the president,” said Steven Schier, a political analyst at Carleton College in Minnesota.
Representative James Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the House leadership, said the Democratic majority had caucuses representing blacks, women, liberals, conservatives and a variety of views.
“We expect that inside our caucus we will have these kinds of passions being on display on a regular basis,” he said.
Republicans have been nearly uniform in opposing the healthcare bill under construction in Congress, which is designed to rein in costs, create competition for insurance companies through some type of public plan and extend coverage to 46 million uninsured Americans.
The price tag of at least $1 trillion is too high, they say, and will add to the deficit and pave the way for a government takeover of healthcare.
They have watched the Democratic infighting with glee.
“The only thing bipartisan about the measures so far is the opposition to them,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said on CNN’s “State of the Union” show on Sunday.
“They have produced a measure that they cannot sell even to their own members,” he said.
At a news conference last week, Obama said he understood the Democratic concerns and characterized them as part of the give-and-take of the legislative process.
“Because this is a big issue, I think that a lot of Democrats have a lot of different ideas,” Obama said. “I‘m confident at the end we’re going to have a bill that Democrats and some Republicans support.”
In the House, talks will continue this week with fiscally conservative Democrats known as “Blue Dogs,” who clashed with liberal Democrats last week on a proposal for a new commission that would set payment rates for healthcare providers under Medicare, the government health program for the elderly.
The seven Blue Dogs on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is considering the healthcare plan, hold the balance of power on the panel and have held up a vote.
“We are not trying to kill healthcare reform,” said the group’s Representative Mike Ross. “We are trying to save it.”
Many of the group’s more than 50 members in the House represent conservative districts that voted for Republican President George W. Bush in 2004 or Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008.
Their political interests do not always align with Obama, and with congressional elections looming next year each is making his own political calculus on the healthcare plan.
Opinion polls show declining public support for Obama on the healthcare issue amid the debate in Congress.
“A big majority can be a blessing or a curse -- and in this case it’s a curse for Obama,” Schier said. “A lot of Democrats are getting nervous about this.”
In the Senate, three Democrats and three Republicans on the Finance Committee have been involved in closed-door negotiations to produce a bipartisan agreement. Some Democrats have become impatient as the talks have dragged on for weeks and have questioned the need for bipartisanship.
One of the leaders in the talks, Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, said on Sunday Democrats did not have enough votes to pass the bill without Republican support.
“We’re probably going to get a better product if we go through the tough business of debate, consideration and analysis of what we’re proposing,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Democrats have a 60-seat majority in the 100-member Senate, enough votes to break any Republican attempt to block the bill through procedural maneuvers. But if a few Democrats defect, luring Republican votes will become crucial.
“Democrats have a 60-to-40 majority in the Senate, and a bigger margin than that in the House. So if they all got together, they could pass a bill,” Republican Senator Jon Kyl said on Fox News Sunday.
“This isn’t being held up by Republicans,” he said.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham