WASHINGTON — House Speaker John Boehner pecked Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi on the cheek. Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy conferred amiably with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. Republicans and White House officials slapped each other on the back.
By Washington standards this was politics through the looking glass — an alternate world of negotiation, conciliation, achievement and, yes, even camaraderie.
Nibbling canapés and sipping from long-stemmed wine glasses, lawmakers from both parties mingled in the White House Rose Garden Tuesday in a rare bipartisan gathering to celebrate passage of an equally unusual compromise that permanently changed how Medicare pays doctors.
The scope of the problem — Congress has been making annual last-minute fixes to the payment structure for years — and the extraordinary common ground both parties negotiated was enough cause for President Barack Obama to bring lawmakers, Cabinet members and White House staff together to praise the accomplishment.
"We did not just settle for fixing an old formula, we replaced it with a better one," Obama said on a warm spring evening.
The bill overhauls a 1997 law that aimed to slow Medicare's growth by limiting reimbursements to doctors. Instead, doctors threatened to leave the Medicare program, and that forced Congress repeatedly to block those reductions.
Obama signed the legislation with little fanfare Friday, letting it quickly become law to avoid a 21 percent cut in physicians' Medicare fees. But he promised then he would commemorate the moment this week.
Obama specifically singled out Boehner and Pelosi for thanks Tuesday, as well as other negotiators such as Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
Still, he couldn't help but tease Boehner, who has held multiple votes to do away with Obama's health care law, by noting that the new law provides financial incentives for physicians to bill Medicare patients for their overall care, not individual office visits.
"I shouldn't say this with John Boehner here, but that's one way that this legislation builds on the Affordable Care Act," Obama said, adding, "But let's put that aside for a second."
The $214 billion law rewrites how Medicare pays doctors for treating over 50 million elderly people. It also provides extra money for health care programs for children and low-income people, which Democrats sought. And it imposes higher costs on some higher-income Medicare beneficiaries, which Republicans wanted.
"We did not, in this case, simply kick the can down the road; we solved a problem, and we made life better for a lot of people," Obama said. "And we crossed one of Washington's perennial 'cliffs' off the list for good. And we proved that's possible. And my hope is, is that that helps build a little more momentum to get some other good stuff done. "