Why sickly US health bill affects us all

Republican resentment bodes ill for yet-to-be-passed bills

So the picture on Capitol Hill may now be one of grinning Democrat faces -- but for how much longer? Early today, health-care reforms backed by President Barack Obama finally scraped past the crucial Senate hurdle, with the Democrats getting the required 60 votes to move the bill to a final vote by Christmas Eve.

Yet this Democratic victory has bred deep resentment in the Republican caucus. Reports from Washington suggest that a new era of partisanship is about to begin, boding ill for yet-to-be-passed bills still tied up in the Senate.

The key concern is that Republicans will choose to play politics, causing domestic intransigence to weigh down on globally important issues such as climate change and nuclear weapons proliferation.

Climate change legislation, which Senate Democratic leaders aim to bring to the floor by next spring, has been hotly opposed by Republican senators, particularly those from the manufacturing states. The failure of the bill to pass through the Senate before the recently ended Copenhagen summit was blamed as one of the reasons for the world's subsequent inability to agree on a legally binding treaty, demonstrating how America's domestic problems have impeded global co-operation.

Similarly, Obama wants the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a legally binding agreement that calls for a world halt to nuclear weapons testing which the US Senate declined to ratify in 1999. To date, the treaty has been signed by 182 countries, but has yet to come into force because the US and eight other countries have yet to give it their approval.

Both bills require a 60-40 majority to pass, making a show of bipartisanship all but crucial for any hoped-for success: with exactly 60 Democratic senators there is no room for manoeuvre. And, remember, Obama's stated goal was to achieve a bipartisan health bill -- a forgotten hope.

Republicans are convinced that the Democrats are heading towards an "historic mistake" and intend to force a series of six procedural showdowns to keep Senate in session right through Christmas Eve -- a tactic designed to drag the final vote out until after the Democrats' self-imposed deadline. If successful, this would further delay attempts to work out a compromise between the House's and the Senate's health-care legislation.

Moreover, the Democrats' hard-fought win still hangs in the balance -- the absence of a single member of the Democratic caucus could derail the bill's progress.

"What the American people should pray is that somebody can't make the vote," Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a leading Republican opponent of the health bill, was quoted as saying.

The Senate bill, as it now stands, will significantly transform the US health-care system, mandating almost all Americans to buy insurance, with those from lower-income groups receiving subsidies to do so. It would mean 94 per cent of Americans under the age of 65 would have medical coverage by 2019.

But compromises had to be made in order to win the necessary votes.

The option of a new government-run insurance plan to compete with private insurers was dropped, while support had to be given to revised language on abortion in order to win the crucial 60th vote from Senator Ben Nelson from Nebraska -- one of the most conservative Democrats. The bill now says that states can opt out of insurance plans that cover abortions, and state "insurance exchanges" will have to offer at least one plan that does not fund abortions.

Nelson's support for the bill was also given on condition that the federal government will permanently fund Nebraska's bill for Medicaid, the insurance plan for the poor.

Such wrangling for votes has attracted fierce criticism that the concessions made to Nebraska are akin to bribery and corruption. Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, described the effort to get the 60 votes as "basically a pay-to-play approach . . . and it's just repulsive".

However, this does not mean that the haggling is over. The bill will have to be merged with the House's version, which still restrains the government option and places stricter limits on abortion funding, before going back to both houses for another vote.

 

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.