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June 15, 2019

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A Vegas-style gamble on Obama’s agenda

Democrats, facing tough midterm elections, know passing key legislation may be their only ticket to re-election in November

obamatownhall

Las Vegas Sun

President Barack Obama listens Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) during a town hall meeting at Green Valley High School in Henderson Friday, February 19, 2010.

Obama Town Hall

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, left, and President Barack Obama wave as they conclude a town hall meeting Friday, Feb. 19, at Green Valley High School in Henderson. Launch slideshow »

The political strategy in Washington these days is a familiar one to Las Vegas. It amounts to going for broke. All in.

After a year of impasse on key legislation and sobering results in recent special elections, one might think President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats would pull back on their political agenda, perhaps try a new approach, something little less ambitious, something a little more bipartisan.

Not so. Obama unveiled a new health care plan this week that is just as ambitious as the one Republicans have been fighting, the same one that helped Scott Brown, a Republican upstart, pull out a victory in the race for the Massachusetts Senate seat long held by Ted Kennedy.

Similarly, a bipartisan jobs bill that had attracted some Republican support was ditched in favor of one that was criticized as a Democrats-only bill crafted by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Democrats seem to have learned the opposite lesson. Obama’s campaign-style speeches in recent weeks, including in Las Vegas, are aimed at pushing his policies forward.

Democrats’ message from the first year of the Obama presidency and the difficult battle for health care reform seems to be that if they have any hope of retaining power in the midterm election, they must show they are not afraid to accomplish the goals voters elected them to achieve in 2008.

“It’s tough out there,” Obama told a crowd in Henderson last week. “That’s why we asked you to send us to Washington ... We didn’t run to kick our problems down the road. We ran to solve problems that folks like you are facing every single day.”

As congressional leaders head to Blair House this morning for the White House summit on health care, they are pressing forward with legislation that was Obama’s top domestic policy priority despite staunch Republican opposition.

Not only are Democrats going for broke, but they are also forcing Republicans to make their own gamble. Republicans must decide whether they will stand firm in their opposition to Obama’s agenda — a strategy that has served them well so far but could haunt them as the “party of no” this fall.

Democrats “are doubling down, but they’re also trying to smoke out Republicans: ‘OK, put your money where your mouth is,’ ” said Jim Kessler, a vice president of Third Way, a centrist think tank in Washington.

The gambit is a dicey one for both sides. Voters are not pleased with Congress. But polls show that although Democrats have lost favor since their landslide victories in 2006 and 2008, voters aren’t convinced Republicans would do a better job.

The prize this fall could be a decisive election victory, signaling which party is rising in Congress.

So far, the Democratic strategy is showing early dividends. Reid’s abrupt decision to gut the bipartisan jobs bill in favor of a scaled-down version proved successful this week.

Not only did Reid secure 62 votes to advance the bill, thanks to support from Brown and four other Republicans who crossed party lines. But 70 senators voted for the legislation Wednesday, including 13 Republicans. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., voted no.

Republicans are reluctant to be seen as voting against jobs during the recession. The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce was among those praising the bill’s passage.

“Businesses are struggling, and this bill will help encourage job growth by giving tax breaks to businesses that hire the unemployed,” chamber Chairwoman Kristin McMillan said.

Health care reform, though, is a heavier lift than a jobs bill.

The issue has divided Nevada and the nation. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll this week shows the country evenly split on health care. Polls in Nevada have shown that although voters are unhappy with the health care system, they oppose the congressional bills. Yet the Kaiser poll shows 58 percent of adults nationwide would be “disappointed” and “angry” if Congress fails to pass health care reform this year.

“The country still is not sure whether they want this or not,” Kessler said. “The jury’s still out on whether it’s a political winner, a political loser.”

Still, Obama has decided to press forward, understanding that to cede what was once his top domestic policy priority would be a greater political loss.

“Here’s what I ask of Congress: Do not walk away from reform,” Obama said during his State of the Union address, fewer than 10 days after Brown’s victory. “Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people.”

Obama’s bill largely mirrors the version Senate Democrats passed Christmas Eve, but with sizable changes — including getting rid of special payments for Nebraska and postponing a tax on high-end health benefits. Rather than amend the legislation to appeal to Republicans, the president crafted it to attract reluctant House Democrats, a signal that Obama sees the path forward not through Republicans but in shoring up his party.

Democrats, especially those in difficult re-election races this fall, have been skittish about returning to health care when they would rather focus on jobs. For six months, Democratic Rep. Dina Titus, who represents recession-weary Southern Nevada, has repeatedly said jobs, not health care, should be the priority.

Titus and other Democrats will have to decide whether to go all in on health care.

“People feel like you got to get something done,” Titus said Wednesday after the House voted 406-16 to pass legislation that would end the antitrust exemption for health insurance companies. “I feel that way.”

Democratic Rep. Gerald Connolly of Virginia, president of the House freshman class, agreed. “If the result is nothing, it’s a lot worse.”

The most likely scenario for passage of health care legislation: The House votes on the Senate-passed bill, then both chambers take up another bill that would make changes needed to please both houses and address Obama’s legislation. This would likely be done through the reconciliation process that requires only a majority rather than the 60 votes typically needed in the Senate.

Some Democrats hope to accomplish this by Easter.

Republicans are indicating they, too, have no intention of abandoning their campaign of opposition. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky made it clear he found little to like in the president’s bill.

“We’ve now had an opportunity to look at the president’s summary of where he’d like to go on health care, and I would say putting a new name on a whole lot more spending is clearly not reform,” McConnell said.

He called the Democrats’ approach “arrogant.”

One Republican aide called the Democratic approach the chip-on-the-chair strategy — one last shot at winning big. “If they don’t get it, I’m not sure what’s left.”

Judy Feder, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said Republicans have a choice to make.

“We’ve not seen any serious investment in health care reform by Republicans and this is a chance for them to show that or to decide that they just say ‘no,’ ” she said.

The cards have been dealt for today’s summit. Both sides will be gambling on the political path forward.

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