The Slow, Slow Pulse of the Deliberative Body

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."

All 10 Republicans voted in favor of the Republican amendment. All 13 Democrats opposed it.

The next amendment -- a plan to curtail medical malpractice lawsuits -- was doomed from the start, but Hatch went ahead with it anyway.

"It would be a colossal intrusion into the judicial arena," thundered Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

Hatch knew he had no chance. "I know what's going on here," he said. "I wasn't born yesterday." Angrily, he complained that the Democrats' proposal "doesn't help health care one bit, it doesn't help people to be more healthy; all it does is pass on all kinds of stupid, dumb costs to all of us in society."

Hatch's "stupid, dumb" outburst lent the hearing room the feel of a playground, but mostly senators were careful to display the usual collegial flourishes as they divided along party lines. "On so many issues you and I share a real passion for not creating bloated bureaucracies," Mikulski told Roberts, before disagreeing with the Republican.

"You were Princess Leia and I was Luke Skywalker," Roberts added.

"Right, but we don't want to be Harry and Louise," Mikulski rejoined, recalling the advertisements that doomed the last health-care reform attempt in 1994.

But within seconds, Luke and Leia were pointing their light sabers at each other. "I'm just asking you to read the bill!" Mikulski told him.

Roberts demanded the floor. "I have the time," he said.

Hatch regained the floor long enough to report that the Democrats' bill "is going to lead to rationing."

"Frightening people by talking about rationing does not contribute to the debate," Dodd replied, demanding an immediate vote.

All 10 Republicans again said aye. All 13 Democrats again said no.

The GOP amendments were going nowhere -- but that was no concern to Sen. Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican who introduced yet another amendment that would limit malpractice awards.

This stirred Whitehouse to read a passage from Tocqueville about the wonders of the jury system. "It is an article of faith within the Republican Party that the institution of the jury is a problem for America," Whitehouse alleged. "I think they are deeply, deeply wrong."

"I appreciate the lecture on jury trials," Enzi replied bitterly, "so that's a false stalking horse." He lodged a counter-accusation that Democrats were motivated by trial lawyers' money. "I know where the donations come from," he said.

"I don't think Alexis de Tocqueville's judgment was affected by political contributions," Whitehouse spat back, "and I don't much appreciate the suggestion that mine was."

The chairman looked at the empty seats around the table. "We don't have the requisite numbers to vote on this," he said. "So we can continue the debate."

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