Washington Sketch: Deliberate Deliberations on Health Care

In the operating theater that is the Senate, John McCain and his colleagues have not switched to emergency mode.
In the operating theater that is the Senate, John McCain and his colleagues have not switched to emergency mode. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Dana Milbank
Friday, June 19, 2009

Congress will probably pass health-care reform. Less clear is whether anybody now living will be around to see it.

The Senate health and labor committee has 388 amendments awaiting action as it takes up the bill this week. Yesterday morning, it managed to dispense with exactly five of them -- three approved, two defeated -- before the lawmakers, weary from their exertions, took a two-hour lunch break. At this rate, it will take the committee 37 more days to get through the bill, assuming members meet all day, five days a week, skipping their summer recess.

"I never suggested this was going to be at warp speed," Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), the acting chairman, said before recessing for lunch. Actually, Dodd is humming along compared with the other committee with responsibility for the bill, the finance panel, which postponed hearings until next month.

The pace does not seem to trouble the Republicans, who don't have the votes to block the legislation but do have the power to delay it. Of the 388 amendments, 364 have been proposed by Republicans.

"Mr. Chairman, you may be able to get it out of committee," Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) lectured Dodd, "but it's going to be one heck of a criticized bill."

It already is. On Wednesday, the committee started work just after 10 a.m. and recessed after 6 p.m. It didn't get beyond the opening statements. Yesterday's hearing was scheduled for 10 a.m., and Dodd, in shirt sleeves, finally got things going at 10:50. "Let me say yesterday was a long day of opening statements," Dodd began.

"You're looking very sprightly today, very strong," Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) teased, "as opposed to yesterday."

But Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) had plans to change the chairman's sprightliness. He proposed an amendment that would require proof that any new health program would save money. "You could end up with a bill that's easily headed toward a $2 trillion price tag that's unfunded," Gregg complained.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) praised Gregg for his "Yankee frugality" before telling him: "This amendment is simply throwing sand in the gears."

"I don't think it's throwing sand in the gears," countered Gregg, releasing a stream of metaphors: "Debt on the back of America . . . never going to catch your tail . . . a wish and a prayer."

Mikulski informed Gregg that she didn't just write the bill "while I was getting a manicure."

After half an hour of bickering, the chairman suggested: "I would like to move along, if we can."

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