Opinion

Opinion: Forget the Moderates, Only the Die-Hards Can Get Health Care Back on Track

Kennedy and Hatch a great example of working across the aisle

Sens. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, left, and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts at a 1997 press conference introducing the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

If the failure of health care reform taught us anything last week, it’s that somebody somewhere in Washington is going to have to start compromising if anything is ever going to get done.

But if you’re thinking a successful compromise is going to come from moderates like Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, or Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., think again. Although those senators’ roles will be important, all of the moderates from both parties together still don’t have enough votes to pass legislation.

Instead, the movement, and the concessions, are going to have to come from the true believers of both parties — the hardcore liberals and conservatives who are least likely to give up on their principles and are thus most likely to bring a critical mass of their party along with them.

If it seems like an extreme situation, it really isn’t. The history of Congress is full of achievements that never could have happened without collaborations among congressmen and senators who almost always disagreed with each other, but found a way to work together nonetheless.

Not birds of a feather

One of the best examples is the partnership between the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who once said he ran for the Senate so that he could fight against Kennedy in Washington.

After a rocky start, Kennedy and Hatch eventually teamed up to pass some of the most consequential legislation of their times, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which remains the primary source of health insurance for children in low-income families.

Had Hatch and Kennedy not found a way to work together, there’s good reason to think those bills never would have passed. But they did.

Another political odd couple was President Ronald Reagan and Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, the Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. The two were the driving forces behind the overhaul of the tax code in 1986.

Reagan had led the conservative revolution, while Rostenkowski was a classic liberal Chicago pol. But only they could have produced a bill and kept their parties behind legislation that significantly lowered tax rates for the wealthy, which Republicans fought for, while also eliminating income taxes altogether for millions of low-income Americans, which had long been a liberal goal. 

More recently, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., managed to pass some of the only major legislation of the last several years, including a highway bill and a chemical safety bill, even though their personal politics could not have been more different. 

In all of those partnerships, it wasn’t moderates, but true partisans who came and stayed at the negotiating table to make a deal. But their opposing politics were the key to their successes, not the impediment.

Had Reagan not been a trusted conservative, his fellow Republicans never would have gone along with some of the concessions he made to Rostenkowski to get tax reform.

Had Kennedy not been the “liberal lion of the Senate,” he would not have had the trust of unions, liberals and activists that was crucial to get his fellow Democrats to “yes” along with him. That’s why he could work with President George W. Bush to pass Medicare Part D and Rep. John Boehner to pass No Child Left Behind.

The legislation may not have been exactly what liberals wanted, but because Kennedy had negotiated the bill, every Democratic constituency believed it was the best deal they could possibly get.

Big shoes to fill

So who is going to fill Kennedy’s role as a liberal deal-maker, or match Reagan’s willingness to give liberals a win for a victory of his own? Who are the lawmakers who understand that intransigence is a luxury Americans can’t afford anymore, but possess a moral authority that can stand up to attacks from outside groups whose success relies on Congress’ failures?

First, they’ll need to be someone their party’s base believes in. They will also need to have enough legislative chops to create solutions instead of just shopping among ideas that have already been reviewed and rejected, time and time again.

They should probably not have presidential ambitions, which is the fastest way to ruin any creative thinker. And finally, they need to have friends, or at least be capable of making them.

Hatch and Kennedy were not just political allies, but real friends. When Rose Kennedy died, Sen. Hatch went to her funeral (and was asked to sit with the Kennedy family), a gesture that Sen. Kennedy returned when Hatch’s own mother died.

When the senator from Utah talked about how much he enjoyed singing, Kennedy helped him get a record deal. When Sen. Kennedy and his wife Victoria celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary, Hatch wrote a song for them.

Each man trusted the other to live up to his word. Trust is a rare commodity in Washington, but that’s why it’s also so powerful.

So who could be the new deal-makers in Congress, including on health care? Sen. Hatch not only has the Finance Committee chairmanship, but the past that suggests he could step into that role again.

Sens. Tim Scott and Mike Lee are also names that come up again and again among Republican activists. Although Scott is short on experience, it’s hard to find a Republican more beloved by the base who has also worked across the aisle in the past. Lee surprised even Democrats when he opposed an earlier GOP draft of health care reform. Could he be part of a solution? Some people think so.

On the Democratic side, few have more sway with the progressive base than Sen. Elizabeth Warren, but it’s Bernie Sanders who has signaled his willingness to work with Republicans, as he did on VA reform. Sen. Cory Booker is another base favorite, who has become one of the more innovative legislators in the Senate in his relatively short time there.

The good news is that the list of potential deal-makers and legislative leaders in both parties goes on. Time, and their own courage, will tell us who they are.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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