America Debates Health Care 'The Process in Congress Is Not Pretty'

US President Barack Obama is launching a last ditch effort to find bipartisan support for health care reform. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, political scientist Norman Ornstein talks about the vanishing political center in the US, Obama's efforts to reach out to Republicans and the president's chances for health care success.

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SPIEGEL ONLINE: When the Democrats lost their crucial 60th Senate vote in January, US health care reform stalled in Congress. More Americans than ever are growing frustrated with the political process. Is Washington broken?

Norman Ornstein: Things are getting done in Congress, but the process is not pretty. Everything has become so much more partisan.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Wasn't that always the case?

Ornstein: I haven't seen anything like this in the past 40 years. To pick an example: The conflict over the Vietnam War was unbelievable. We had Democratic Senator George McGovern go on the floor and say: The walls of this chamber reek with blood. And his conservative colleague Bob Dole publicly ripped him apart for that. But there was a very large share of conservative Democrats supporting American involvement in Vietnam -- and the people who opposed the war included a large number of liberal Republicans. So the issue wasn't simply a partisan one. You had a lot of people in the center.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What has happened to the center?

Ornstein: The culture has changed. In the US, you have the expansion of the "permanent campaign" which forces politicians to raise money all-year round. To make matters worse, when it ruled that corporations can now spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigning, the Supreme Court just made sure we will have the Wild West in the campaign system. Also, members of Congress don't spend much time in Washington. They don't bring their families here so they hardly socialize with their fellow members. We also don't have compulsory attendance at the polls -- so loyal voters matter more. And that encourages outlandish appeals to the base, scaring people that the other party is destroying the country.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In addition, many districts have become extremely homogenous because of partisan gerrymandering to make them a safe bet for one party or another.

Ornstein: Members of Congress can go home now and they don't have to represent different kinds of people. When they are largely safe in general elections, the only thing that matters are the primaries where you are going to be challenged from the right as a Republican or from the left as a Democrat. So, playing to your base is encouraged -- not reaching out to other groups.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Has Obama underestimated how hard it would be to change Washington?

Ornstein: He knew such partisanship was there but believed he could overcome some of it. Not that he would get Republicans to vote for him in most cases -- but that, at least, he could tone down the rhetoric. It matters because if you do significant things to affect people's lives, they will be suspicious of the outcomes. If one side says that what is being implemented is going to destroy the country and its fabric, you are going to have a harder time making those changes work.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Could the President have done things differently in his first year?

Ornstein: It was a good idea to start out having Republicans over at the White House for drinks and conversation, even if it didn't have any immediate impact. That is something he should have continued doing -- just to show the American people that he was trying and that the other side did not react. He pretty much abandoned it for a while and now he has picked it up again. But let's face it: A year ago, you had a new president coming in with a clear public mandate and an economy the worst since the Great Depression -- yet, not a single Republican voted for the stimulus package. So there was not much Obama could build on.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is today's "health care summit," with its televised debate to which the president invited the Republicans, actually a genuine effort to reach out to the opposition? Critics say it's a PR stunt by the White House, during which they want to portray the opposition as the "party of No".

Ornstein: It may be both. I do think it is an effort to get some Republican ideas on the table and then to openly explore them. It is clear, though, that if as a president you incorporate a few things and they still refuse to vote for your bill, you have a greater ability to go to the public and tell them: I tried. I don't think the summit is just a set-up. But I also think that there is an expectation amongst Democrats that it is not going to provide much.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Democrats are already talking about using a legislative tool known as "reconciliation." It would allow the Democrats to pass the health care bill with a simple Senate majority. Republicans argue that going the "reconciliation" route would represent a skirting of the parliamentary process.

Ornstein: It has been used very frequently on matters of great importance. There have been more than 20 pieces of legislation, including much of the health agenda, done under "reconciliation."

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But will the public see it that way?

Ornstein: I do think the summit gives Obama more of a rationale if, following it, he brings the Republicans in by adding some ideas. Then there might not be as many consequences for using reconciliation. Once it's done, the bill will be viewed as something else that he got done. And then Obama can move on to other issues.

Interview conducted by Gregor Peter Schmitz

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