As various health care bills wind their way toward the House and Senate floors, the White House is soliciting support from some unlikely allies: Republicans. In the past few days such high-profile Republicans as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tommy Thompson, health and human services secretary in the Bush administration, have come out in support of an overhaul. The administration hopes this will help win over moderates in Congress.
The former majority leader of the Senate, Republican Bill Frist, said this week that if he were in Congress, he'd take the heat and vote for an overhaul.
"I'm coming out very strongly in support of what's going on in the Senate Finance Committee," Frist, a heart surgeon, said on CNN. "It's bipartisan; I hope that it ends up being bipartisan. If not, I think it's going to be a destructive bill. But it's bipartisan, people working together, so we're on the way there."
Then there's Mark McClellan, who ran Medicare under President George W. Bush.
"Congress needs to act. The health care issues facing this country are both major and urgent," he said. "We have a real opportunity now to make some progress — not just on improving coverage, but also on improving health care. My hope is that we'll take advantage of those opportunities."
And then there's Republican Bob Dole, another former Senate majority leader: "I think we need health care reform and we need it now. We don't need it four or five years from now."
Dole spoke to NPR's political editor Ken Rudin a few weeks ago, and his stance has only gotten stronger since — that the Republican minority in Congress needs to be more flexible. He told the Kansas City Star on Thursday, "I don't want the Republicans putting up a 'no' sign and saying, 'We're not open for business.'"
And there are more Republicans coming out — some after being nudged by the Obama administration: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (an independent running as the Republican nominee for reelection) and former Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker (another past majority leader), in addition to Schwarzenegger and Thompson. Thompson said he signed on to a joint statement with former House minority leader Dick Gephardt, a Democrat, that says "failure to reach an agreement on health reform this year is not an acceptable option."
Effect Of Endorsements
So, is all this pressure from Republicans outside Congress affecting Republicans inside Congress?
Not a bit, say California's Darryl Issa, Illinois' Mark Kirk and Arizona's Jeff Flake. Exactly the opposite.
"It's like endorsements in a congressional race: They're usually overrated," says Flake. He says what's going on here is an obvious political tactic by the Obama administration.
"They'll always go after people to try to get support, and we expect that, but I can't see it affecting many votes here."
And, many congressional Republicans point out, the endorsements are actually pretty vague. Frist, for example, is urging Congress to pass a bill — after some changes are made. Issa says Schwarzenegger's support isn't unconditional either.
"My governor's not saying sign [the House bill] or vote for it, and nothing close to it," he said.
But Issa does acknowledge the main message of all those Republicans outside the Capitol: that there is a big opportunity here that should not be wasted.
"Yes, they do want us to reach a compromise on those things which we can compromise on, which would lower the cost of health care and increase availability and portability," he said, "and Republicans almost to a person are very much in favor of that, including myself."
The problem is all that other stuff — the health care reforms the majority Democrats want to enact.
So whether rank-and-file Republicans ultimately vote yea or nay, as Dole says, it's probably going to be the toughest vote they'll cast in their congressional careers.