Health care debate: Views from Minnesota

The U.S. Capitol
A view of the Capitol building in Washington.

Democrats in Washington are trying to figure out what to do next with health care overhaul legislation.

With the loss of the Senate's filibuster-proof majority as a result of the Senate race in Massachusetts, some observers wonder if a health care bill has gone from a sure thing to dead on arrival.

Former Republican Sen. Dave Durenberger of Minnesota says it feels like 1994 again. That's when he and other Senate Republicans and Democrats tried to find middle ground on a major piece of health care legislation, but in the end couldn't pass it.

One day after the Republican victory in the Massachusetts Senate special election, President Obama took a step back when he called for a scaled-down version of health reform. He urged lawmakers to come to a quick agreement on core elements of the bill.

But if that means taking parts of the bill and trying to pass them incrementally, Durenberger -- a health care reform supporter -- is pessimistic.

"It just feels like that bridge has been burned," said Durenberger. "This president is going to be around perhaps longer than his polling numbers suggest as of right now, and there will be plenty of other Congresses to get on with the policy side of health reform."

David Durenberger
Former U.S. Sen. David Durenberger, R-Minn., chairs the National Institute of Health Policy at the University of St. Thomas.
Photo courtesy of the University of St. Thomas

Durenberger says Democrats had a good bill based on sound public policy, but it's starting to look as though they can't win politically if they pass it.

One Minnesota Republican hopes that's true, and that reform has little hope of survival. U.S. Rep. John Kline, who represents the 2nd Congressional District, reiterated what he's said for the past several months -- that it's time to start over with the health care debate, and to make sure both Republicans and Democrats are involved.

"If they want to get meaningful reform that will have the backing of the ... majority of American people, they need to stop, take a step back, push the reset button and draft legislation that is bipartisan," said Kline.

But Durenberger says if the bill fails, both Democrats and Republicans are to blame. He says the Democrats made mistakes -- the president took too long to explain to the country what health reform was about in understandable terms.

And Durenberger contends most Republicans never intended to commit to changing health care policy, even with ideas brought forward by other Republican senators -- for example, tax changes that John McCain recommended or Medicare changes that Olympia Snow recommended.

"They need to stop, take a step back, push the reset button and draft legislation that is bipartisan."

"There were plenty of good Republicans in the past that have worked together with Democrats -- [Charles] Grassley, Orrin Hatch and others," said Durenberger. "Those people made a choice, along with the Republican leadership, to be negative this time, not to play ball. And of course that was a factor that perhaps should've been anticipated by the Democrats, but clearly wasn't."

Rep. Kline says Democrats ought to sit down with Republicans and try to come up with a list of health care changes on which they can agree. Fellow Republican Erik Paulsen of Minnesota's 3rd District agrees. Paulsen says the results of the Massachusetts election go well beyond discontent over health care reform.

"I definitely think it's a wakeup call for Congress, and the resounding message is that Washington has been on the wrong path," said Paulsen. "I think the public is tired of bailouts. They're tired of behind-closed-door deals that go on, particularly in the areas of health care reform where a lot of sweetheart deals were done to benefit certain states, for instance."

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Al Franken, a DFLer, says he's not sure what the next step is on health care. Speaking before a meeting with other Senate Democrats, he said they would be looking at their options.

"There's different ways to skin this cat, but I think we have to be respectful to everyone, to the process," said Franken. "We may need to win over a Republican. That's always possible. And we'll be looking at that today."

Franken says Republicans have to be willing to negotiate. He says there are still ways to improve the legislation.