WASHINGTON — As Democrats, reeling from the loss of the Massachusetts Senate seat, mull over how to proceed, U.S. Rep. Marion Berry and others involved in the last major effort to overhaul the health-care system are struck by a sense of political deja vu.
The 1993-94 endeavor collapsed during President Bill Clinton’s first term, and it precipitated a landslide of Democratic losses in the House and Senate in the 1994 congressional elections.
For Berry, the parallels are striking.
“I began to preach last January that we had already seen this movie and we didn’t want to see it again because we know how it comes out,” said Arkansas’ 1st District congressman, who worked in the Clinton administration before being elected to the House in 1996.
Within a week of the current health-care process beginning, Berry said, “I just began to have flashbacks to 1993 and ’94. No one that was here in ’94, or at least no Democrat, will ever forget what the day after the election felt like. It certainly wasn’t a good feeling.”
With that in mind, Berry said, the results of last week “certainly bring back memories.”
Judging from what Arkansas Democratic congressmen are saying, there is no doubt about the degree to which the political landscape in the nation’s capital has been jolted.
Rep. Mike Ross says his party should be hearing alarm bells.
Rep. Vic Snyder uses meteorological imagery to describe the unsettled political climate.
Berry can’t get 1994 out of his mind, the year when Republicans gained 54 seats in the House of Representatives, sweeping to power there for the first time since 1954.
Republicans also seized the Senate, picking up eight seats.
Berry, who represents northeast Arkansas in Congress, criticizes his own party regarding current health-care legislation, calling it an “ideological effort” driven by “political ambition.”
Berry and the 4th District’s Ross credited the Blue Dog coalition of fiscally conservative Democrats, of which they are leading members, with working to tailor the House bill to take into account the concerns their constituents are raising.
Berry recounted meetings with White House officials, reminiscent of some during the Clinton days, where he and others urged them not to force Blue Dogs “off into that swamp” of supporting bills that would be unpopular with voters back home.
“I’ve been doing that with this White House, and they just don’t seem to give it any credibility at all,” Berry said. “They just kept telling us how good it was going to be. The president himself, when that was brought up in one group, said, ‘Well, the big difference here and in ’94 was you’ve got me.’ We’re going to see how much difference that makes now.”
To underscore his point, Berry quoted former Texas Rep. Charles Stenholm, a fellow conservative Democrat, who said after the 1994 Republican landslides: “the Democrats had worked like hell to get into the minority and we were not going to give it up easily.”
Ross also criticized his party leadership for “back-room deals” and “secretive meetings” during the current legislative process. As head of the Blue Dog’s health-care task force, he played a key role in shaping the House bill and expects to continue being involved in it.
Though Berry said he has been hearing warning bells since last winter, Ross said he’s been hearing them since last summer.
“The people of Massachusetts were sending the same message to Washington that I’ve been sending since July, that is that we need commonsense health-care reform that’s done in an open and transparent way,” Ross said.
All three of Arkansas’ Democratic House members said there were differing opinions within their party about how or whether to pursue healthcare legislation in the wake of last week’s Massachusetts election.
“For that state to go Republican in a U.S. Senate race should sound alarms all over Washington to wake up and understand that the people want Congress and want Washington to be focused on jobs and the economy and putting America back to work,” Ross said, summing up the view of the Arkansas House delegation.
Snyder turned to a sailing metaphor to explain the lessons that lawmakers should take from last week’s turn of events.
“When the wind blows, you don’t fight the wind,” said the 2nd District congressman. “You don’t ignore the wind. You figure out how to work with the wind.”
While Snyder said it’s time to “regroup,” he acknowledged that it’s uncertain what that will mean.
“We’ve had a very vigorous American debate about health care for a year,” he said. “It will continue longer than that because we have not come up with a solution that solves the problem but does not create anxiety.”
While it remains unclear what course the health-care legislation will take, Arkansas’ members - Democratic and Republican - agree that there could be support for some limited measures.
Rep. John Boozman, the only Republican in Arkansas’ delegation, said the approach should be incremental and focus on issues that “reform the current system rather than creating a new system.”
“If they took that kind of approach, they could get bipartisan support,” the 3rd District congressman said. “They’d have my support.”
What all the state’s congressmen said they can’t support are some of the key elements that had been included in versions of the legislation: a government-run public insurance option as well as mandates for all Americans to have insurance and for all employers to provide insurance or face penalties.
The other aspect of the health-care debate that the Arkansas members agree on is that the problem behind the overhaul effort remain: healthcare costs soaring at the same time millions of Americans have no insurance or inadequate coverage.
“It all needs to solve a problem rather than penalize somebody for what we consider to be bad behavior but they may not consider to be bad behavior,” Berry said. “I don’t think we’ve done that, and I think we missed a great opportunity to do that with very little political pain and suffering. And for whatever reason, my own party has chosen not to do that.”