Majority Plots a Counterattack

Posted December 2, 2009 at 6:40pm

Senate Democrats scrambled on Wednesday to speed up the pace of debate on their $848 billion health care reform package in the face of strong Republican opposition that has stalled votes on amendments and jeopardized the legislation’s approval by Christmas.

Democrats are considering a range of parliamentary strategies to speed up the amendment process — and were still vowing to pass a bill before Dec. 25. But leaders are beginning to concede that their goal may be out of reach and are promising to work straight through New Year’s Day if they have to.

“We’re not going to sit here in quorum calls for weeks while they don’t even bring their amendments to a vote,— Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said. “If the floor activity is any indication, the Republican caucus does not want this bill to be amended, debated, or even passed.—

Durbin said Democrats are working on a strategy to overcome GOP parliamentary tactics. But Durbin, following a special closed-door meeting of the Democratic Conference to consider Senators’ next moves, declined to elaborate.

However, Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) confirmed that one of the ideas under consideration is to begin tabling the GOP amendments. Proposing to table would require an immediate vote and only needs 51 votes to prevail.

“We’re on the third day now of no votes, and I think it’s becoming clear that what’s happened is, there’s just a stall,— Harkin said. “So, it seems to me, we have to then — since they’re doing that kind of tactic — then we’re just going to have to start moving to table amendments.—

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) added that Republicans “are using whatever it takes to block us from actually solving the health care problem.—

Although the debate on Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) health care bill officially opened the Saturday before Thanksgiving when Senators voted 60-39 to bring the measure to the floor, amendments did not hit the floor until Monday. Three amendments have been on the floor and under debate since then, but no votes have been held — partially because Republicans have objected to holding them.

On the floor at least through early Wednesday evening was an amendment by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) to include coverage of preventive health care services for women, a similar proposal from Republican Conference Vice Chairman Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), and a motion to recommit proposed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would strip Medicare cuts from the bill, pull the measure off of the floor, and send it back to the Finance Committee to be adjusted.

Republicans vociferously denied Democratic charges that they were slow-walking the bill for political gain, saying they are simply trying to block a bad measure in the event that they cannot make substantive changes to it. In fact, Republicans issued counter-charges that Democrats are attempting to rush passage of their bill because they know it is unpopular with voters.

“They should not expect to pass this by Christmas, because it took Reid three weeks, in secrecy, to put the bill together,— Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said. “Doesn’t he think the other 99 Senators deserve at least three weeks to debate it?—

The GOP appears unmoved by Democratic threats to shorten the planned Christmas and New Year’s recess — or eliminate it altogether — in order to approve health care reform this year, saying in effect: Bring it on. Reid has already informed Senators that the chamber will be in session every weekend leading up to Christmas.

“He said he’s going to keep us here on Saturdays and Sundays, and I’m happy to continue to work all the way through — I’m used to that, having practiced medicine,— said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), an orthopedic surgeon by trade who has emerged as a leading GOP voice in the debate. “I worked Saturdays, Sundays, holidays. I’m ready to continue to talk about the bill.—

Reid warned Democrats on Wednesday that they should prepare to take more than few tough votes and that he may not always be able to shield them from GOP amendments. Part of the Democratic strategy to get the debate jump-started will involve using procedural maneuvers of their own, like the nondebatable motion to table, to force votes on the floor.

Democrats said Reid has not yet considered using an arcane procedure, known as “filling the amendment tree,— to block Republican proposals to the bill, primarily because it would also prevent Democrats from offering their own amendments.

Likewise, Reid has not decided whether to try to force an end to debate on certain amendments by filing motions to limit debate on those proposals, but aides held out the possibility that he may need to do so in the future.

However, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) signaled that Reid might be prepared to bypass several amendment votes simply by incorporating Democratic proposals into the manager’s amendment or a package of amendments that would be voted on at the conclusion of the debate.

“We need to show some movement. We can’t be stagnant here,— a senior Senate Democratic aide said.

“On some of these, we’d like to do side-by-side [amendments], but not at the expense of delays,— this aide said Reid told his caucus during Wednesday’s closed-door meeting. “It was an attempt to get our Members to understand the obstacles we face in having a debate on this bill.—

While recognizing they may be characterized as obstructionists, Republicans are convinced the public is on their side in the health care debate and are angling to stretch the debate out as long as possible while still allowing for a healthy pace of voting.

One GOP Senator confirmed Wednesday that the obstructionist label is a concern, although a lobbyist said that Republican Capitol Hill sources “were emphatic that nothing will occur before the holiday or this year.—

Meanwhile, Democratic Senators are quietly beginning to refer to President Barack Obama’s 2010 State of the Union address in January as the new deadline for final Congressional passage of health care reform. Even if the Senate passes a bill this year, a House-Senate conference committee still must meet to merge the two chambers’ versions of the overhaul.

Emily Pierce contributed to this report.