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OUR OPINION: 'Olive twig' to the GOP

President Barack Obama made a nod in the direction of bipartisanship Wednesday night.

But he made just a nod. He didn't commit, and he certainly didn't say anything like this:

"For the unity of our great nation and the success of this hugely important reform, it's vital that a health care bill pass with solid -- not simple -- majorities.

"Members of Congress, I urge you to work with me and with each other to get this job done right."

With that kind of language and commitment, health care reform could pass with strong bipartisan support. It might not pass in 2009, and it might not look a lot like the bills that are moving through committees now.

But it could pass, and it could do so without half of our country getting mad at the other half.

We don't need more reasons to be polarized. A unifying result is worth working and waiting for,

Obama's nod came when he took up the subject of malpractice reform. "Many in this chamber -- particularly on the Republican side of the aisle -- have long insisted that reforming our medical malpractice laws can help bring down the cost of health care," he said.

"I don't believe malpractice reform is a silver bullet" to curb spending, he continued. "But I have talked to enough doctors to know that defensive medicine may be contributing to unnecessary costs."

That was smart politics. But Obama proposed only a modest reform -- namely, letting states experiment with ways to reduce costs.

It wasn't an olive branch; more like an olive twig, as one blogger put it. The Washington Post summed it up this way: "The ideas the president embraced stopped considerably short of the federal limits on malpractice awards that the GOP and the nation's physicians have sought for years."

Other than that, the president either scolded Republicans or seemed to dismiss their concerns. That's a shame. True, some GOPers would block any attempt at reform. But the whole caucus isn't that way. Some members have championed bipartisan measures in the past and likely would do so again.

The criticisms they're now raising are worth listening to

For example, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, partnered with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., to pass children's health insurance, as Obama himself mentioned Wednesday night.

But Hatch remains deeply skeptical about Obama's proposed reforms.

"Medicare is now a $39 trillion liability, and it is underpaying doctors and hospitals," he told an interviewer after the speech.

"It will be broke in the next decade, and the president acts like everything is all right?

"Plus, the president acknowledged again that he wanted an IMAC, an independent Medicare advisory committee. ... They will get five people appointed who basically have life and death control. We all know we are heading towards rationing."

One more point, this one about paying for the reforms:

"For President Obama to say that the money to fund his program will come out of fraud, waste and abuse, it just doesn't make sense." Tax hikes -- big ones -- will be the inevitable result, Hatch said.

Those aren't scare tactics, as far as we can tell. They're fair criticisms, ones that reformers should factor in now, before the reforms have become law.

The way to do that is to insist on a bipartisan plan.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald