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Now or never

Democrats need Bush and Schwarzenegger to reform immigration and health care.


A TABLOID without a spread on Paris Hilton. A snowball in July. A humble Yankees fan.

Pick your metaphor. None would be as rare as the opportunity now presenting itself to the Democratic majorities in Congress and the California Legislature.

In each case, a Republican executive has signaled his eagerness to sign into law a long-standing progressive goal: President Bush on legalization for illegal immigrants, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on universal healthcare. That convergence represents a unique but fragile asset in today's polarized political culture. Both sides may regret it for years if they fumble these opportunities.

Failure might be most inexcusable in California. With both the state Senate and Assembly approving plans to significantly expand coverage, and Schwarzenegger committed to covering all of the uninsured, California could soon finalize the most comprehensive state-level plan yet to guarantee healthcare for all residents.

First, Schwarzenegger and state Democrats must resolve their differences. Last week, Democratic leaders merged competing Senate and Assembly health bills in a way that, on most key points, made it tougher for Schwarzenegger to accept.

Like Schwarzenegger, the legislators agreed to require employers who don't insure workers to pay a share of their payroll into a state fund that would subsidize coverage for the uninsured. But while Schwarzenegger set the fee too low at 4%, Democrats responded with an aggressive 7.5% rate guaranteed to inflame business opposition.

Democrats also rejected Schwarzenegger's proposal to match that employer mandate with an individual mandate, which would require all state residents to buy insurance. Liberal interests, led by labor unions, hate the idea because they consider it unfair to working families. But an individual mandate, if combined with state subsidies and limits on out-of-pocket expenses, could help cement a final agreement built on shared responsibility.

As they maneuver, both sides should remember that their decisions will reverberate far beyond the state. Success in California "would be the most significant thing to jolt the healthcare system" toward national reform, said Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, a major force in Democratic healthcare politics. Conversely, Stern notes, "If we have a California failure, it just adds to the weight of this being an issue no one can solve."

Stern could match his words with deeds if he steers the union's powerful California affiliate toward accepting a deal that couples a higher fee on employers than Schwarzenegger proposed with a requirement that at least middle-income individuals buy insurance. Liberals may resist that price, but if they consider it difficult to impose an employer mandate now, they should imagine trying it without a Republican governor running interference.

Likewise, Democrats and their allies may be underestimating the value of Bush's support for their top priority in the national immigration debate: establishing a pathway to citizenship for 12 million illegal immigrants. Immigration reform passed a critical procedural hurdle Tuesday in the Senate, but nearly a dozen Senate Democrats might still oppose the bill, most of them because they believe it concedes too much to conservatives on enforcement, guest workers and the rules for future legal immigration. On similar grounds, the AFL-CIO and several Latino groups last week denounced the bill.

Before any bill is finalized, the House will need to revamp some punitive elements inserted into the Senate bill to attract conservative votes. But Democrats and their allies are deluding themselves if they believe that a future Democratic president could offer them a better deal. If the nativist right appears unhinged now, imagine what talk radio would sound like if it were President Hillary Clinton proposing to legalize 12 million illegal immigrants.

And without a Republican president to twist arms, the dwindling band of conservative GOP senators, such as Arizona's Jon Kyl, still supporting the bill would surely find a reason to walk too -- leaving Democrats to try to pass legalization alone. Good luck on that. "It's nuts to think we should wait on this and do it ourselves if a Democrat wins the White House," said Matt Bennett, a vice president of Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. "You have to share responsibility for something that is really hard."

Bennett's point applies as keenly to healthcare in California as to immigration in Washington. On both fronts, neither party relishes compromise. But Bush and Schwarzenegger must recognize that no Republican-controlled legislature would approve anything like the immigration and healthcare plans they prefer. And legislative Democrats must understand that it may be impossible to achieve their goals without the bipartisan cover Bush and Schwarzenegger offer. The key to agreement is for each side in these prickly partnerships to recognize that they need the other. Just like Paris Hilton and the tabloids.

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