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The object of their objections

By Dana Milbank
Sunday, November 8, 2009

At long last House Democrats passed their health-care legislation Saturday night. The Republicans objected. Often.

The debate was only a few minutes old when Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) rose to speak. "I ask unanimous consent -- "

"I object!" shouted Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), the leader of House conservatives.

" -- to revise and extend -- " Capps continued.

"I object! I object!" Price hollered.

Capps tried again. "I ask unanimous consent to revise my -- "

"I object!"

" -- remarks -- "

"I object! I object! I object! I object!"

The presiding officer pointed out that Capps had not said anything that could be objected to.

Capps started over. "I ask unanimous consent to revise my remarks -- "

"I object!" cried Price, sounding like Ned Flanders on "The Simpsons." "I object! I object! I object! I object!"

" -- care denied because of a preexisting condition -- "

"I object! I object! I object!"

In the first 40 minutes of Saturday's debate on the landmark bill, representatives from the minority party objected -- or threatened to object -- no fewer than 75 times, throwing in 35 "parliamentary inquiries" for good measure. The debate was delayed by nearly 90 minutes.

This objectionable situation captured the spirit of the day's debate on and off the floor. The weight of the moment proved too heavy a lift for those writing the moment into history. Democrats provoked Republicans, who reacted with rage, and nobody looked their best.

Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) brought two of his children into the well to serve as props while he spoke. Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) did him one better by borrowing and holding up an infant with a teething ring. "Maddie believes in freedom," he explained. "She doesn't want her mom's taxes to go up by $730 billion, do you, Maddie?" he asked the baby, who swatted at the microphone. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said that because of Republicans' stone hearts, "if you kicked 'em in the heart, you would break your toe." By the end of the debate, Republicans were openly heckling Democratic speakers.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) donned a Hawaiian flower necklace and said: "The one who created this lei also created our freedom." Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) likened Congress to "a broke, drunk gambler." Rep. Pete Roskam (R-Ill.) held up a pair of handcuffs to make his point. Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) shouted "Shame on you!" at Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio). Boehner assured everyone that his denunciations of the bill were not hyperbole, which he pronounced "hyperbowl."

The vote had been expected to be a dramatic showdown. But on the eve of the debate, Democratic leaders forced liberals to swallow an antiabortion amendment that brought enough moderates on board to make passage highly likely. Republican leaders, in turn, removed any suspense on their side when they pledged earlier in the week that all members of their caucus would oppose the bill. The result was a debate ranging from petty to insipid.

Democrats, invoking Roosevelt (Teddy and Franklin) and Kennedy (Jack and Ted), repeatedly congratulated one another for being historic figures. "We will in sum, my colleagues, on this historic day, vote for a more perfect union of which our founders dreamed," said Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.).

Republicans reflexively and incessantly denounced a nationalization of health care. "It's a 2,000-page road map to a government takeover of health care," said Rep. Roy Blunt (Mo.).

Democrats seemed to be taunting the minority as they began their celebration hours before the vote. President Obama visited with House Democrats at midday, and White House spokesman Bill Burton reported that members spontaneously chanted the Obama campaign slogan "Fired up! Ready to go!" This was not audible to reporters standing just outside the door.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) was so fired up that he left to do an interview on MSNBC. Asked on air what the president had said, Stupak answered: "He was just starting to go into health care when I stepped out to talk to you."

Republicans, meanwhile, skipped out of the chamber mid-debate to join several hundred conservative activists at a protest on the Capitol lawn. "My vote is not just no -- I wish there was a place for 'Hell, no,' " Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.) told the crowd. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) led a chant of "Hell, no!" Demonstrators shouted out "Tyranny!" and "Down with Mao!"

Activists wheeled a giant toilet-paper roll, made from a printout of the health-care bill, toward the Capitol steps. Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) gave the demonstrators passes to the House gallery -- a gesture that may have been related to the frequent disruptions there later in the day.

Then again, it was difficult to tell the disruptions in the gallery from those on the House floor. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) spoke about health benefits for women. "I object!" came a cry from the GOP side. "I object! Mr. Speaker, I object!" Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) spoke of the aged. "I object! Objection!" the Republicans interrupted. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) rose to speak. "I object! I object! Mr. Speaker, I object!"

At the speaker's desk, octogenarian Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who held the gavel when Medicare was passed in 1965, pounded that same mallet for silence. He asked the legislators for "a measure of comity and grace and decency" in the debate.

It was asking too much.

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