Opposition lawmakers left talks with Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte and Labor Party leader Diederik Samsom in the early hours of Thursday with some hope that an accord could yet be reached on a critical health reform law that was unexpectedly voted down in the Senate on Tuesday.
“We saw some optimism in their eyes,” the leader of one of the two small Christian parties that backed the coalition’s health reforms told reporters after a second night of crisis talks in The Hague.
Alexander Pechtold, who leads the liberal Democrats, said progress had been made and talks would continue later on Thursday.
The leaders of the three opposition parties had joined the talks in the prime minister’s office for less than an hour.
Earlier in the day, the leaders of Rutte’s liberal party, including health minister Edith Schippers, met behind closed doors in central The Hague while the Labor Party leadership gathered in the Social Affairs Ministry. Talks there were jointly chaired by Samsom, the party leader, and Lodewijk Asscher, the social affairs minister and highest-ranking Labor Party member of the cabinet.
The liberals expected Labor to come up with a solution because it were three of their senators who triggered the crisis when they voted against the health law, going back on the party’s word to support the reforms and blowing a €1 billion hole in the government’s budget.
The reforms — which would allow health insurance companies to limit their customers’ hospital choices to raise efficiency and reduce premiums for consumers — were painstakingly negotiated by Schippers with insurers, hospitals and the three opposition parties.
The ruling Labor and liberal parties do not command a majority in the Senate, usually a sleepy constitutional body that can do little more than send legislation back to the lower house. The support of the two small Christian parties and Pechtold’s liberal Democrats should have given the coalition a one-seat majority.
Other opposition parties reject the changes, meaning they cannot pass without the support of the full Labor Party.
The three dissident Labor Party senators fear the reforms would give insurers too much power over health-care providers. They wanted Schippers — who is tipped as a potential successor to Rutte as liberal party leader — to make concessions. Schippers said the ball was in Labor’s court.
Labor has tested the liberals’ patience before. The latter were forced to accept changes in immigration policy under pressure from Labor. Late last year, one of the same senators who blocked the health reforms on Tuesday threatened to hold up a housing bill. He was persuaded to vote with the government at the last minute — notably not by party leader Samsom but by the social affairs minister, Asscher.
Asscher is considered a better candidate to lead the party into the next election. Many leftwingers are disillusioned with Samsom. Labor polls at between eleven and fifteen seats against the 36 it has now — which would make the once-dominant social democrats only the sixth largest party in parliament.
The liberals do poorly too. Both poll show them losing fourteen seats out of 41.
Many right-wing voters haven’t forgiven Rutte for raising taxes.
The liberal Democrats would be among the beneficiaries of early elections. Polls give them between twenty and 25 seats, making them virtually indispensable to any future coalition.