Editor's note: John Feehery worked for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and other Republicans in Congress. He is president of Feehery Group, a Washington-based advocacy firm that has represented clients that include News Corp., Ford Motor Co. and U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He formerly was a government relations executive vice president for the Motion Picture Association of America.
John Feehery says gaining bipartisan support for big legislation is extremely difficult.
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In the early morning of November 22, 2003, David Wu, a congressman from Oregon who is a Democrat, stood in the well of the House of Representatives, staring at the wall in the chamber that contains the names of the members of Congress with lights beside their names showing how they voted on the pending business.
Green denoted an aye vote, red a no vote, and yellow a vote for present.
Beside Wu's name, no light appeared. He hadn't made up his mind. On either side of him -- for a period of time that seemed like an eternity -- Wu had colleagues screaming in his ear, telling him to either vote yes or no on the pending piece of legislation.
He was the deciding vote, and he couldn't make his decision. So for at least an hour and maybe more, he stood looking at that board, in a seemingly trance-like state.
Finally, several Republican members changed their votes from no to yes, giving Wu the excuse he needed to vote against his leadership and vote for the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act.
The final tally was 220 for the conference report, 215 against, with 25 Republicans voting against their leadership in opposition to the bill and 16 Democrats voting against their leadership for it. The three-hour vote was the longest in the history of the House, and it showed how difficult it is to pass truly bipartisan legislation in the modern Congress.
The tale of how Republicans were able to craft a monumental piece of bipartisan legislation in the face of intense political pressure is instructive, especially in the context of today's debate on health care.
Under the leadership of Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, a veteran of many health care battles, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, himself a physician, Republicans were able to get critical interest groups, including the usually left-leaning AARP and well-funded trade association PhRma, to join forces in support of the reform effort.
In the House, the road to bipartisanship was a tough slog. Then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi pulled out all the stops to keep Democrats from cooperating with Republicans. In the Senate, it was a bit easier, as first Sen. Ted Kennedy, who saw the opportunity to get an expanded entitlement, supported initial passage in the Senate, and then Sens. Max Baucus and John Breaux brought it to the finish line in conference.
What lessons can be found by looking back at the prescription drug experience?
First, there is the strategy revolving around bipartisanship. It may appear obvious that in the House, it is very difficult to achieve bipartisanship. But as the David Wu example showed, without bipartisan support there, the prescription drug benefit legislation would have died.
It is true that the ideological gulf between the Republican and Democratic leaderships in the House is too wide to allow for much cooperation at the leadership level. But among backbenchers, it is possible to get some support as long as the issues are framed correctly, the interest groups are properly engaged and the pressure is applied in just the right way. And that support can be critical to its ultimate passage.
So far, the Obama White House has bungled the framing of the issue. Instead of pushing for common-sense solutions, the liberals in Congress have tried to set the stage for a single-payer system.
Instead of taking incremental steps that are hard to resist, like an expansion of Medicare (a la the prescription drug bill) or a further expansion of children's health care, the Democrats decided that they were going to do radical reform. They framed the issue as big change. But big change scares people, especially if they already have health insurance, which the vast majority of people do.
When Republicans passed the prescription drug bill, they initially pushed for a complete overhaul of the Medicare plan, but by the time the conference report got to the House, that reform was much more incremental. They were able to frame the issue not as radical change, but common-sense reform. And while many conservatives hated the bill because it spent too much and many liberals hated it because it spent too little, enough folks in the middle found it nonthreatening enough to pass it into law.
The White House also has stumbled when it comes to engaging the interest groups. When Republicans moved on prescription drugs, they targeted the drug industry and seniors groups. It was a rare but fruitful alliance. The Obama White House also has corralled the support of PhRMa and they are running supportive ads. But the drug industry doesn't have enough grassroots power to pass this themselves, and the support of seniors groups, especially the AARP, has been ill-defined and overly vague.
Senior citizens fear more from reform than they will get from it. And those are the folks who members of Congress are hearing from, more than any other group, this August.
Finally, the pressure exerted by the president on members of Congress has missed the mark. Campaign style events don't work for the legislative process. George Bush made that exact same mistake when he tried to pass Social Security reform. He did pep-rallies, town-hall meetings, and a variety of other campaign events, but the Congress remained unmoved.
President Obama has spent his August rallying for reform, when he should have been back in Washington plotting strategy with his committee chairmen and his Democratic leadership. Cutting deals, not endless campaign events, is the better approach to getting real bipartisan support for legislation.
Because of poor communications and legislative strategy, it is unlikely that the White House will be able to get much, if any, support from congressional Republicans.
Conservative members of Congress have heard loud and clear from their most avid supporters that this bill is too big, too scary, too complex and too expensive. It didn't take much convincing for them. But even for the more moderate members, the message back home is clear. Don't vote for whatever the Democrats come up with. It's not worth it.
Getting to a bipartisan conclusion is hard work. It requires the right strategy, the right timing and the right support. So far, the Democrats have failed on every level. And for that reason, they will probably have to go it alone if they want to pass comprehensive health reform this year.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Feehery.