Health bill opponents make most of mammogram advisory

Democratic leaders, including Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), right, are still not sure they have enough votes to move the bill.
Democratic leaders, including Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), right, are still not sure they have enough votes to move the bill. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/associated Press)
By Michael D. Shear and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 21, 2009

As a health reform bill endorsed by President Obama marches toward its first Senate floor vote on Saturday, his opponents stepped up efforts to define the legislation as big-government ambition run amok that will interfere with intimate medical decisions and threaten the pocketbooks of average taxpayers.

A dozen Republican senators spent Friday in an orchestrated, hours-long session of floor speeches, assailing the health-care bill as a vehicle to higher taxes, Medicare cuts and premium increases. Meanwhile, the surprise recommendation this week by a quasi-government panel that women should have fewer mammograms injected a volatile issue into the health debate.

Conservatives on radio and television have seized on the controversial recommendation as an example of the big-government medical care that will follow if Obama gets his way.

Phil Kerpen, director of policy at Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group opposed to Democratic reform plans, said the guidelines are "very helpful for our side" because they illustrate the perils of greater government involvement in health care.

"Seeing a government panel coming out with a recommendation that is so personal to people really focuses attention on what these changes would mean for patient care," Kerpen said.

But White House officials dismissed that as overheated rhetoric and expressed little concern that the issue would resonate with Democratic lawmakers or average Americans.

"Many of the opponents of health reform stopped relying on truth, facts and reasoned argument a long time ago," said Dan Pfeiffer, White House deputy communications director.

The immediate concern for Obama and his allies in Congress remains collecting the votes of wavering, moderate Democratic senators who hold the key to moving the process forward. The Senate will vote Saturday night on whether to begin extended debate on the $848 billion health-care bill, and Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) said he is confident he will have the 60 votes necessary to pass that motion.

Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, one of those moderate Democrats, said Friday that he would vote to begin debate. Reid still needs the votes of two other key Democrats, Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.) and Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), who have yet to publicly announce their position.

Trying to increase the political pressure on the holdouts, the White House released a statement Friday night saying that the administration "strongly supports" the Senate bill and "urges quick action on this landmark bill."

As Reid counted votes, Republicans on Capitol Hill and conservative pundits searched for ways to frame the mammogram recommendation in a political context.

Congressional Republicans said privately this week that the issue perfectly illustrated their concerns about government expanding its role into private health-care decisions, and they expect it will be highlighted often throughout the remainder of the health-care debate. Republican women in the House have already started criticizing the recommendation.

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