FACT CHECK: Obama approach at odds with past views

By Calvin Woodward
March 5, 2010

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WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama is trying to achieve a health care overhaul the way he once said it couldn't, and shouldn't, be done.

He now wants congressional Democrats to move ahead without Republican support and pass the legislation with a bare majority in the Senate instead of the broader majority he favored as a presidential candidate.

To be sure, Obama has tried to get Republicans behind him. Having failed, he's reverting to a "50-plus-one" strategy that he called a losing proposition -- because "you can't govern" with it -- back when he was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Republican Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia complained Thursday that Obama had "done a 180" by resorting to the fast-track procedure, given his past views as a candidate.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs denied that, insisting Obama was "talking about electoral strategy, not vote counting in the House and the Senate," in his October 2007 remarks. In fact, Obama was talking about both, and more.

Cantor made his remarks on the House floor, where he also defended his own party's use of special parliamentary tactics to pass laws with a simple majority. He was wrong, too, in stating that in most instances, Republicans had used the tactics to pass legislation that had bipartisan support.

A look at the claims Thursday and how they stack up to the facts:

THE CLAIM: Gibbs at first said Obama was only talking about how to get elected when he criticized the 50-plus-one strategy in an October 2007 interview with the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire. Pressed, Gibbs then said Obama meant "you're not going to get legislation through Congress if only 50 percent plus one in the country think it's a good idea. That's why if you look at poll after poll, people want health care reform and the debate on health care reform to continue."

THE FACTS: Obama wasn't talking about polls or public opinion -- or only about electoral politics -- in the interview.

"You've got to break out of what I call the -- sort of -- 50-plus-one pattern of presidential politics, which is you have nasty primaries where everybody's disheartened, then you divide the country 45 percent on one side 45 percent on the other and 10 percent in the middle," he began. "Battle it out and then maybe you eke out a victory of 50 plus one, and then you can't govern."

He went on to talk specifically about getting legislation through Congress: "You can't deliver on health care. We're not going to pass universal health care with a 50-plus-one strategy. We're not going to have a serious bold energy policy of the sort that I proposed yesterday unless you build a working majority."

Asked in the interview if his Democratic nomination rival Hillary Rodham Clinton would be a "50-plus-one president" and that's why he, as a consensus builder, would be better, he replied, "Yes."



When House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., argued that Republicans had used the same fast-track process to enact major legislation along partisan lines when they were in charge of Congress, Cantor denied it. "There was, in the main, bipartisan support for what was being done through reconciliation in those instances," he said.

THE FACTS: Of the 10 occasions between 1995 and 2005 when Republicans were in the Senate majority and used reconciliation to pass bills, seven passed with deep partisan divisions.

In 2005, for example, Republicans used reconciliation to muscle through a deficit reduction bill that restricted Medicaid payments. It passed with 50 Republicans in favor, all Democrats against and Vice President Dick Cheney voting to break a tie -- about as divisive as a Senate vote can get.