All things being equal (which, as we all know, they never are), President Obama would rather, we are told, that the U.S. Senate pass 85 percent of his proposed health care reform with the backing of 70 senators than pass 100 percent of his plan with just 51 or 52 votes.
In preferring that major health care reform win Senate support of a super-majority, Obama echoes Thomas Jefferson, who wrote, "Great innovation should not be forced on slender majorities." It is an old legislative maxim that the more legislators, from both parties, there are who support a controversial policy change, the more people there are who have a stake in that public policy being successfully accepted by the voters at large.
The historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 - which guaranteed the right, previously denied African-Americans in many states, to use restaurants, theaters, hotels, motels, parks and public places - was passed by the U.S. Senate on June 10 after senators had debated, since March, that "great innovation" for some 57 Senate working days (including six Saturdays). After complete press coverage of the Senate debate and the bitter-end filibuster, organized by 18 senators from states of the Old Confederacy (all Democrats), the nation overwhelmingly concluded that the Civil Rights Act was both wise and overdue.
That law - with its profound change in banning racial desegregation in the country - was a bipartisan achievement when it finally passed the Senate by a 73-27 vote. Actually, a higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats in both houses of Congress supported the 1964 Act, including such respected GOP senators as Everett Dirksen of Illinois, Jacob Javits of New York, Thomas Kuchel of California, Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania and John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky.
Contrast that bipartisan legislative record with the vote in the U.S. House in August 1941 - when Adolf Hitler ruled France and nearly all of Europe and only a severely outgunned England stood against the Nazi domination - to continue, or to abolish, the military draft for one year. With isolationism popular in much of United States and nonpartisanship scarce, the House voted to extend the military draft by a single vote, 203 to 202. It was a significant decision even by a razor-thin margin, especially so when we recall that the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor and World War II were just a little over three months away.
Crunch time on health care reform is close. Up to now, President Obama's approach has been the opposite of the Clinton method in 1993, when Hillary Clinton's task force drew up in private a finished, complex plan that was then presented to the Democratic Congress. That plan never even got successfully out of subcommittee, let alone to a floor vote.
The Obama administration has given the Congress both time and space to work on a plan. But now, the road gets rough and dangerous for Congress, and the president - as only the president can do - will have to personally seize the leadership and both confront and force the difficult decisions. He may eventually have to convene a select group from in and out of Congress - under his strong guidance and direction - to draw up the plan that can pass both Houses.
No decision will be tougher politically than deciding how (and who's) to pay the 13-numeral-plus cost over the next 10 years. Obama spent enough time in the Senate to understand the wisdom of Bob Dole, who concluded of that place, "We like to make tough speeches, but we don't like to make tough choices."
The ultimate decision the president could confront is not whether he settles for 85 percent of his health care reform with 70 Senate votes or whether he goes for 100 percent with just 51 votes. No, his fateful choice could be whether he settles for some two-thirds of what he wants with 51 votes. Because, let us be blunt: If health care reform fails this year in the Congress, the damage to the entire Obama agenda and mystique will be major.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.