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THE NATION | Ronald Brownstein / WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

It's Time for Some Big Ideas to Be Put Into Play

May 21, 2006|Ronald Brownstein

Immigration, healthcare and energy are three of America's most complex domestic problems. Each presents a unique political and policy puzzle.

But the debates in Washington about these issues over the last two weeks have all turned on a common question: Can the president and Congress think big enough to forge comprehensive solutions to the nation's challenges?

When the two parties demonstrate that sort of flexibility and imagination, they create the opportunity for real progress. When they don't, the prognosis is stalemate or token action.

On healthcare, the parties have demonstrably failed to meet that test. On energy, the signs are mixed. On immigration, the answer is a hopeful "maybe."

Let's start with the debacle of "healthcare week" this month in the Senate. GOP leaders intended the week to dramatize their concern about the strains on the healthcare system; instead, it demonstrated only the futility of attempting to impose narrow, one-party solutions to major problems.

Republicans brought to the floor two big ideas: limiting awards in medical malpractice cases and preempting state laws that require insurance companies to provide specific services. Predictably, Democratic filibusters blocked both bills.

The fall of the insurance restructuring bill was especially revealing. No one doubts that rising health insurance costs threaten the ability of employers, especially small businesses, to cover their workers. But the Republican plan, crafted by Sen. Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyo.), responded with a solution attractive solely to employers and insurers -- preempting state mandates that require health policies to cover specific needs, from maternity care to cancer screenings.

Business, with some justification, believes those mandates inflate premium costs. But state regulators, with equal justification, believe that preempting the mandates could leave millions of Americans with inadequate health coverage. The standoff produced a partisan stalemate: All but one Republican voted for the bill, and all but two Democrats supported the filibuster that killed it.

The result wasn't exactly a surprise. The House has passed similar insurance legislation eight times; each time, it has failed in the Senate.

The only way out of this impasse may be to enlarge the terms of a solution.

In Massachusetts, Republican Gov. Mitt Romney and the Democratic Legislature recently reached agreement on an insurance reform law -- but within a universal coverage plan that requires all residents to buy health insurance, provides state subsidies to help low-income people meet that requirement, and taxes businesses that don't insure their workers.

"When you [take] a systematic approach, you can horse-trade within that," said Timothy R. Murphy, the state's secretary of Health and Human Services. "You have more things you can talk about."

On energy, the same wisdom applies. Under President Bush, Democrats have blocked the most significant Republican efforts to expand domestic oil production, while the administration and congressional Republicans have blocked the most significant Democratic ideas to encourage conservation and alternative energy.

Even with record gas prices, Washington can't escape that rut. In the House last week, Democrats and moderate Republicans sank conservative plans to increase offshore drilling for oil and gas. This week, House conservatives are likely to block legislation that would require automakers to meaningfully improve the fuel economy performance of cars and trucks.

Senate Democrats showed some fresh thinking in the energy plan they released last week. Although the proposal slighted production, it did offer several constructive ideas, including requiring all utilities to generate at least 10% of their energy from renewable sources.

But the Democrats, fearing a backlash in the Rust Belt, did not endorse tougher fuel economy standards for cars and SUVs -- the near-term step that many experts believe would do the most to reduce America's greenhouse gas emissions and its dependence on foreign oil. Republicans are no better: Their proposals reject mandatory increases and merely authorize Bush to raise federal fuel economy standards. Based on Bush's record, that's likely to produce little, if any, improvement.

Once again, the answer may be to enlarge the terms of debate.

As Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has proposed, it would be worth exploring whether auto companies might accept higher fuel economy standards in return for federal help in funding their crushing retiree and health insurance costs. Add support for alternative energy and more domestic drilling into the mix, and Washington might finally build a coalition broad enough to drive real energy progress.

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