Push to reauthorize health care bill yielded no results


WASHINGTON - After the New Year's Day celebrations, the nation actually began 2007 on a curiously hopeful note, with funeral eulogies to the late former president, Gerald Ford. Hailed everywhere as a steadying influence and a healer in the aftermath of Watergate (he took office after Nixon's unprecedented resignation and pardoned him, costing himself the next election but sparing the nation an ordeal it could little afford, as many came to agree years afterward), Ford became a touchstone for the advocates of bipartisanship and mature judgment on Capitol Hill.

For Indian country, Ford's death brought a more direct reminder of healing and health - he withstood pressure against it within his own Republican party and signed the Indian Health Care Improvement Act into law. More than 30 years later, advocates of the bill's long-delayed reauthorization could take hope from a Republican president who recognized the right thing and did it, rather than seizing upon extremist distinctions and using them against the reauthorization at large, as the Justice Department had done at the end of 2006.

But in both cases, hope was in for a disappointment. Bipartisanship was nowhere in sight at year's end, as Capitol Hill and President George W. Bush remained at loggerheads over a federal budget and the war in Iraq. And for Indian country, an all-out attempt to reauthorize health care in 2007 got pushed back into 2008, despite significant progress on the bill within the committees of jurisdiction in both the Senate and House of Representatives.

It wasn't for lack of trying, as the bill's advocates made abundantly clear at a Capitol Hill rally in September. It was for lack of Republican support, despite hearings of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that discredited the continuing efforts of a GOP faction to portray health care for urban Indians as constitutionally suspect. Their insistence on amending the bill to eliminate urban Indian health care provisions remained a stumbling block as Democratic leadership on the bill refused to negotiate the point, or others offered in a scatter of proposed amendments that would dilute the bill's new content (it has never been a simple reauthorization bill). As the year drew to a close, the support of some Republicans wasn't enough to give the bill the 60 votes it will need to overcome a filibuster (prolonged debate as a delaying tactic to put off a final vote) and get to the simple majority vote it would be certain to win.

The conventional thinking is that for controversial bills in a presidential election year, all bets are off. The bill could run out of time on a legislative calendar abbreviated by the presidential campaigns; it could run afoul of the party dynamics at play as loyalties are tested and politicians become less willing than usual to associate themselves with positions outside the party mainstream, held back by the potential perception of their ''doing something'' for the other side; or it could take fire from realignments induced by the Iowa caucuses and early primary results.

And of course, continuing negotiations could produce a breakthrough for bipartisanship.