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Schumer calls Senate Republicans' bluff on health care gambit

Senate Republicans complained that Democrats refuse to help on health care -- so Chuck Schumer offered to lend a hand.
Image: Senate Minority Leader Democrat Chuck Schumer
epa05955065 Senate Minority Leader Democrat Chuck Schumer walks from the Senate chamber to attend a Democratic caucus regarding the abrupt dismissal of FBI...

At a Capitol Hill press conference this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters that "everybody" in the chamber who wants to work on health care policy "is participating," adding, "Unfortunately, it will have to be a Republicans-only exercise."

The Republican didn't say why, exactly, it has to be this way, but a day earlier, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told the Washington Examiner, "We're trying to do it from a one-party perspective because no Democrat is willing to help us. No, this is not the best way to do health care. But it's the way we're having to do it."

It's a curious argument. In the House, GOP leaders refused to even consider bipartisan negotiations, rejecting such an approach on a conceptual level. In the Senate, Republicans created a "working group" in which 13 conservative men, almost exclusively from red states, decided they'd craft the Senate legislation. Democrats weren't invited to participate in any capacity.

I can appreciate why this is an awkward subject for Republicans -- they're brazenly rejecting the legislative process in ways without precedent in the American tradition -- but to argue that GOP lawmakers "have to" try to govern this way is plainly ridiculous. They've chosen this scandalous path, writing a secret bill without hearings, without testimony from subject-matter experts, and without so much as a hint of bipartisan negotiation.

The assertion that Democrats aren't "willing to help," however, is facing an interesting new test. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) sent a notable letter to McConnell yesterday, inviting him and his caucus to start a real dialog on health care:

"On behalf of my caucus, I write to invite you and the Republican Conference to an All-Senators meeting next week on the topic of health care. Now, more than ever, Republicans and Democrats need to come together to find solutions to America's challenges. "Our health care system affects every single American and one-sixth of our economy. We believe we all owe it to our constituents to meet to discuss your potential legislation that would profoundly impact so many American lives. "The U.S. Senate has long been considered the world's greatest deliberative body and, as members of that body, we should each support open and robust debate. That is why we are dismayed at the reports that there will be no public hearings on your proposed changes to the American health care system. "Please accept our invitation to sit down together in the old Senate Chamber so we can hear your plans and discuss how to make health care more affordable and accessible in the United States."

Does Schumer seriously expect McConnell to accept such an invitation? I rather doubt it, but as public-relations moves go, the Democratic leader's letter is a good one. In fact, if Republicans accepted, I don't doubt for a moment that Schumer and his members would be ready to engage in a bipartisan conversation.

McConnell's office responded to Politico in an unfortunate way, saying the Democrats have now "acknowledged ... that Obamacare is not affordable or accessible," which isn't what Schumer said. In a reminder of why constructive policy talks are so difficult, McConnell's office added, "Admitting their law's failures is a welcome first step."

As for the invitation, McConnell's office went on to say Democrats should "propose ideas on how they can help us rescue Americans from the consequences of Obamacare."

There's no indication of what "consequences" the Republican senator is referring to -- I assume the lowest uninsured rate on record, for example, isn't something Americans need to be rescued from -- but the point of the response is nevertheless clear. Senate GOP leaders will continue with their secret talks, and partisan negotiations will move forward behind closed doors and far from the American public's view, but Democrats are welcome to jot down some ideas.

This is pretty much the opposite of how the Affordable Care Act came together. Democrats practically begged Republicans to work with them; The entire process was put on hold for several weeks while the bipartisan "Gang of Six" -- three Democrats, three Republicans -- worked on a possible deal. Senators such as Susan Collins, Chuck Grassley, and Olympia Snowe were brought to the Oval Office for regular and repeated chats about how to find bipartisan solutions. The White House held a bipartisan televised forum to hear GOP ideas from GOP officials.

The idea that Democrats would've written a secret bill, to be voted on without a single congressional hearing, would've been considered insane. The idea that an invitation for a bipartisan conversation would be ignored would've been inconceivable.

The problem isn't just the undemocratic and literally un-American way in which Senate Republicans are trying to pass a regressive health plan. It's nearly as amazing that McConnell and his cohorts can't think of a credible defense for their behavior.