Democrats Think Small to Score Points

Posted February 24, 2010 at 6:43pm

The new Democratic strategy of pushing narrow, hard-to-oppose bills to put Republicans on the defensive and score a few victories is starting to bear fruit.

On Wednesday, the House voted 406-19 to eliminate the health insurance industry’s 65-year-old antitrust exemption, splitting Republican leadership heading into today’s health care summit at Blair House while feeding red meat to the Democrats’ dispirited base.

The move came as the Senate voted 70-28 in favor of its jobs package, achieving a measure of bipartisanship by keeping the package small.

Top Democrats and their aides said they hoped the antitrust bill, along with other narrowly focused health care and jobs measures to come, would set the stage for finishing bigger legislation down the road.

“It’s a good way to build momentum for the larger issues,” a House Democratic leadership aide said, adding that Democrats got bogged down last year in debates over process. “Breaking this up into pieces allows the public to see and digest what the larger bill means.”

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) helped ensure a parade of endangered freshmen Democrats were front and center during the debate on the floor to extol the antitrust measure as a common-sense way to increase competition and fight higher health insurance rates.

“I wanted everyone to be at the front of the line,” he joked.

Van Hollen said it also made sense to move separately the health care items ­— such as the antitrust provisions ­­— that cannot be moved in a reconciliation bill in the Senate, since that is the route that Democrats expect to take to pass their larger health care effort if Republicans continue to unanimously oppose it.

Rank-and-file Democrats also rallied to the antitrust bill, happy to see something on the floor that was short — just two pages — and easy to sell.

“I always think that you’re better to take small bites, chew ’em and then move on to the next one,” said Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), a Blue Dog who is retiring.

“I have long advocated that we sort of adopt a single-issue rule for awhile,” said Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), who represents the Blue Dogs in leadership meetings.

Cardoza said such bills will put Republicans on the spot. “Make them cast the tough votes and explain to their constituents why they oppose doing away with pre-existing conditions,” he said.

Liberals were also crowing.

“The insurance industry rarely, if ever, loses a vote in this town,” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said. “How do you go home and explain to your constituents that you are going to allow price-gouging and price-fixing? You can’t.”

Some Democrats, meanwhile, are recommending that leaders stay focused on small ball and set aside their plans to pass President Barack Obama’s latest $950 billion health care bill in one chunk.

“I recommended that this be done last year,” Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said. Asked whether he thought Obama’s bill could pass on its own, Pascrell simply said, “No.”

The antitrust bill split Republican leadership, with Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) and a small band of conservatives voting to preserve the exemption, while Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) and the bulk of the Republican Conference backed the measure.

A Republican leadership aide dismissed the party split.

“Our Members split because the bill did so little that it was tough to tell if it did anything at all,” the aide said. “You can’t call this ‘small ball’ — it’s too little for that.”