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Bipartisanship Proves Elusive in US Health Care Debate

Bipartisanship Proves Elusive in US Health Care Debate

Bipartisanship Proves Elusive in US Health Care Debate

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President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies in the U.S. Congress moved closer to enacting a health care reform bill this week when a version of reform was approved by the influential Senate Finance Committee. So far, Democratic efforts on health care have attracted the support of only one Republican, and the prospects for winning over more appear remote. While bipartisanship seems elusive now, this was not always the case in Washington.

The political battle lines in the health care reform debate are stark and have come to symbolize the era of polarized politics in Washington.

But there was a time when bipartisan support for major pieces of legislation was not so far-fetched.

In the 1960s, for example, many Republicans were supportive of civil rights efforts in Congress when the Democratic Party was split between southern conservatives and northern liberals.

Some key Republican senators also voted to ratify the Panama Canal Treaty in 1978 despite criticism from conservatives that then President Jimmy Carter was weakening the U.S. by giving up control of the Panama Canal.

In 1973, lawmakers from both parties overwhelmingly supported passage of the Endangered Species Act. And in the mid-1990s, a number of Democrats embraced efforts at welfare reform first put forward by conservative Republicans.

But all of that seems long forgotten in the current Washington debate over health care reform.

President Obama has made health care his top domestic priority, and congressional Democrats are intent in following through on campaign promises they made in the last two elections.

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Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid says the door remains open to Republican support.

"Come join us," he said. "We want health care reform. We want to do it with you. We are going to do it with them or without them."

But so far the only Republican to walk through that door is Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine.

"And I happen to think that the consequences of inaction dictate the urgency of Congress to take every opportunity to demonstrate its capacity to solve the monumental issues of our time," she said.

Snowe made it clear that her support for health care reform could change depending on what the final version of a health care bill looks like.

But the vast majority of Republicans oppose the various Democratic proposals as too much government interference in the economy.

"The Democrats' plans put us on a path to government-run health care," said Congressman John Boehner, who leads the Republican minority in the House of Representatives.

Polarized party politics reached a fever pitch during the presidency of Democrat Bill Clinton during the 1990s, and continued through the eight years of former President George W. Bush.

In last year's presidential campaign, candidate Barack Obama talked about trying to change the political culture in Washington, but so far has had little success.

"Many Republicans, including some quite conservative ones, want to work with the other side because they are spending their careers here not just to kill things or destroy the other party, but to actually improve the lot of the country," said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "But the internal pressure to avoid, as we say sleeping with the enemy, is so great that it keeps them from doing so."

The two parties remain sharply divided on what they see as the role of government, and that divide is playing out in the health care debate.

Republicans cite the example of former President Ronald Reagan, who sought to decrease the influence of the federal government on average Americans.

Democrats have long held a different view, says Georgetown University expert Stephen Wayne.

"Since the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Democrats have basically supported a heavier government involvement," he said. "If the economy was broke, it was up to the president to fix it."

Despite the political divide, analysts see the recent vote on health care reform in the Senate Finance Committee as significant.

"This is as close as Congress has come in 60 years of trying to do health care reform to getting a bill to the Senate floor and it is a big win for Senate Democrats and potentially, if it gets through the [Senate] floor and gets past the House [of Representatives], an enormous win for Barack Obama," said Martin Kady, who is with the political Web site Politico.

But even President Obama has been quick to point out that the battle over health care reform is far from over.

"We are now closer than ever before to passing health reform," he said. "But we are not there yet."

Competing versions of health care reform plans will have to be reconciled in both the Senate and House. Eventually a final plan will have to be produced that can win a majority of votes in the House and 60 of the 100 votes in the Senate in order to prevent Republicans from trying to kill it through parliamentary delaying tactics.