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OPINION: Obama takes a page from LBJ's playbook

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a columnist for The Washington Post and author of numerous books, including "Why Americans Hate Politics.''

For those who feared that Barack Obama did not have any Lyndon Johnson in him, the president's determination to press ahead and get health care reform done in the face of Republican intransigence came as something of a relief.

Obama's critics have regularly accused him of not being as tough or wily as LBJ was in pushing through civil rights and the social programs of his Great Society. Obama seemed willing to let Congress go its own way and was so anxious to look bipartisan that he wouldn't even take his own side in arguments with Republicans.

Those days are over. Last week, the president made clear what he wants in a health care bill, and he urged Congress to pass it by the most expeditious means available. He was also clear on what bipartisanship should mean - and what it can't mean. Democrats, who happen to be in the majority, have already added Republican ideas to their proposals. Obama said he was open to four more that came up during the health care summit. What he's unwilling to do, and rightly, is to give the minority veto power over a bill that has deliberately and painfully worked its way through the regular legislative process.

Republicans, however, don't want to talk much about substance. They want to discuss process, turn "reconciliation" into a four-letter word, and maintain that Democrats are just "ramming through" a health bill. It is all an astonishing exercise in hypocrisy. The health care bill passed the Senate last December with 60 votes under the normal process. The only thing that would pass under a simple majority vote would be a series of amendments that fit comfortably under the "reconciliation" rules established to deal with money issues.

In an op-ed piece in The Washington Post last week, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) cites "America's Founders" as wanting the Senate to be about "deliberation." But the Founders said nothing in the Constitution about the filibuster, let alone reconciliation. Judging from what they put in the actual document, the Founders would be appalled at the idea that every major bill should need the votes of three-fifths of the Senate to pass.

Hatch quotes Sens. Robert Byrd and Kent Conrad, both Democrats, as opposing the use of reconciliation on health care. But Byrd's comment from a year ago was about passing the entire bill under reconciliation, which no one is proposing. And Conrad has made clear that it's perfectly appropriate to use reconciliation "to improve or perfect the package," which is exactly what Obama is suggesting.

Hatch said that reconciliation should not be used for "substantive legislation" unless the legislation has "significant bipartisan support." But surely the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, which were passed under reconciliation, were "substantive." The 2003 dividends tax cut could muster only 50 votes - Vice President Dick Cheney had to break the tie. Talk about "ramming through."

The underlying principle seems to be that it's fine to pass tax cuts for the wealthy on narrow votes but an outrage to use reconciliation to help middle-income and poor people get insurance.

I'm disappointed in Hatch, co-sponsor of two of my favorite bills in recent years. One created the State Children's Health Insurance Program. The other broadly expanded service opportunities. Hatch worked on both with his dear friend, the late Edward M. Kennedy, after whom the service bill was named.

It was Kennedy, you'll recall, who insisted that health care was "a fundamental right and not a privilege." That's why it's not just legitimate to use reconciliation to complete the work on health reform. It would be immoral to do otherwise, letting a phony argument about process get in the way of coverage for 30 million Americans.


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