The Obamas Leave Town By GAIL COLLINS Published: August 21, 2009 NY Times The Obama family is off for a week of summer vacation. This is something Barack owes Michelle and the girls, although I am sure he would personally have preferred to stay in Washington listening to people tell him what to do about health care. The president is getting no end of helpful suggestions. Right now there is probably a caddy on Marthas Vineyard wondering if he will be picked to carry Baracks clubs, and if so, whether there will be time to put in a plug for the public option. The Republicans say if Obama wants a bill that can pass, he should pay more attention to their ideas. Particularly the one about how he has to make the whole thing cheaper without getting the government in the business of reducing health care costs. Democrats want him to stop betraying the partys progressive base by being all kumbaya and bipartisan just because he won the election by being all kumbaya and bipartisan. I am personally thinking that he should grab a copy of Tom Ridges memoir to read on vacation, come back and change the terror alert level to orange. This summer we have found fissures in the social contract we never knew existed before. Until August, I had no idea that we were split over the question of whether it was a good plan to bring an assault rifle to a site where people had gathered to greet the president of the United States. But the biggest stunner was the high regard in which the town meeting protesters seemed to hold members of Congress. One thing I thought all Americans agreed about was that Congress is incapable of getting anything done. But the angry people at those meetings seemed to believe that their elected representatives are strong, sneaky, indifferent to public opinion, and intent on eviscerating popular and much-needed programs in order to create a national health care plan that will make everybody miserable. This was a shocking new concept, a kind of Bizarro Congress that is exactly the opposite of the one we see stumbling through its paces on TV. That CSPAN Congress would quake in terror if asked to pass a bill against littering, fearing constituents might strain their backs by bending down to pick things up. It took the members 30 years to ax a fighter jet program even the Pentagon hates. Who knew they had the gumption to create death panels? Charles Grassley, the Republican senator from Iowa, told one town hall meeting that people have every right to fear that health care reform could lead to a government program that determines if youre going to pull the plug on grandma. Grassley has been in the Senate for 28 years, and chaired the Senate Special Committee on Aging. Yet he seems never to have noticed that if forced to choose between slaughtering a pen full of cute puppies and irritating the senior voters, every single elected official in Washington would grab a hatchet and dive for the dogs. Grassley is a member of the six-person Senate negotiating panel that is making everybody wait around while it allegedly works on a bipartisan health care plan. On Friday, the group leader, Max Baucus of Montana, reported the good news that the senators had a productive phone conversation in which the members discussed our progress. This is the sort of encouraging report that is going to have Obama hitting the lobsters over the head with his putter. Grassley and Mike Enzi of Wyoming, another Republican negotiator, have been busy upping the ante on what counts as truly bipartisan. The magic number for Enzi and Grassley now seems to be 80 votes in the Senate. This would mean getting at least half the Senate Republicans on board. Try to imagine what that would entail. The current Republican caucus contains exactly two members (Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine) who might be called moderate. After that you move into people like Grassley, who is part of the smallish Calm Conservative camp. Then you come to the larger Friendly Reactionaries contingent of which Enzi is a member and which has not indicated actual support for anything about health care reform except bipartisan negotiations. To get to 80 you would have to venture even further to the right, into the Clan of the Cave Bear. It is not clear whether the 80-vote theory was part of the progress that the bipartisan negotiating panel discussed during that extremely productive call. Maybe they were trading stories about how they spent their summer vacations. You may recall that the six states represented by the negotiators contain a whopping 2.77 percent of the American population. Perhaps they just wanted to stay on the phone because theyre lonely.