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Sweeteners for the South

By Dana Milbank
Sunday, November 22, 2009

Staffers on Capitol Hill were calling it the Louisiana Purchase.

On the eve of Saturday's showdown in the Senate over health-care reform, Democratic leaders still hadn't secured the support of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), one of the 60 votes needed to keep the legislation alive. The wavering lawmaker was offered a sweetener: at least $100 million in extra federal money for her home state.

And so it came to pass that Landrieu walked onto the Senate floor midafternoon Saturday to announce her aye vote -- and to trumpet the financial "fix" she had arranged for Louisiana. "I am not going to be defensive," she declared. "And it's not a $100 million fix. It's a $300 million fix."

It was an awkward moment (not least because her figure is 20 times the original Louisiana Purchase price). But it was fairly representative of a Senate debate that seems to be scripted in the Southern Gothic style. The plot was gripping -- the bill survived Saturday's procedural test without a single vote to spare -- and it brought out the rank partisanship, the self-absorption and all the other pathologies of modern politics. If that wasn't enough of a Tennessee Williams story line, the debate even had, playing the lead role, a Southerner named Blanche with a flair for the dramatic.

After Landrieu threw in her support (she asserted that the extra Medicaid funds were "not the reason" for her vote), the lone holdout in the 60-member Democratic caucus was Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. Like other Democratic moderates who knew a single vote could kill the bill, she took a streetcar named Opportunism, transferred to one called Wavering and made off with concessions of her own. Indeed, the all-Saturday debate, which ended with an 8 p.m. vote, occurred only because Democratic leaders had yielded to her request for more time.

Even when she finally announced her support, at 2:30 in the afternoon, Lincoln made clear that she still planned to hold out for many more concessions in the debate that will consume the next month. "My decision to vote on the motion to proceed is not my last, nor only, chance to have an impact on health-care reform," she announced.

Landrieu and Lincoln got the attention because they were the last to decide, but the Senate really has 100 Blanche DuBoises, a full house of characters inclined toward the narcissistic. The health-care debate was worse than most. With all 40 Republicans in lockstep opposition, all 60 members of the Democratic caucus had to vote yes -- and that gave each one an opportunity to extract concessions from Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) won a promise from Reid to support his plan to expand eligibility for health insurance. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) got Reid to jettison a provision stripping health insurers of their antitrust exemption. Landrieu got the concessions for her money. And Lincoln won an extended, 72-hour period to study legislation.

And the big shakedown is yet to occur: That will happen when Reid comes back to his caucus in a few weeks to round up 60 votes for the final passage of the health bill.

Republicans also knew that a single defection would kill the bill, so they tried to pressure the holdouts. "That's what we've got to choose today: Do we choose life or do we choose death?" declared Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). "We just need one vote, one vote on the other side."

But Landrieu had already made up her mind. She went to the floor during the lunch hour to say that she would vote to proceed with the debate -- but that she'd be looking for much bigger concessions before she gives her blessing to a final version of the bill.

"My vote today," she said in a soft Southern accent that masked the hard politics at play, "should in no way be construed by the supporters of this current framework as an indication of how I might vote as this debate comes to an end." Among the concessions she'll seek: more tax credits for small business and a removal of the version of the "public option" now in the bill.

That turned all the attention to the usually quiet Lincoln, who emerged from the cloakroom two hours later to announce her decision. Her attire was school-principal prim -- blue suit with knee-length skirt, orange silk scarf tied tightly at the neck -- and she was clearly uncomfortable in the spotlight. She spoke with the diction of somebody giving a dramatic reading, and she stumbled more than once as she read, botching the crucial line: "I will vote to support, of, the, the, will vote in support of cloture on the motion to proceed to this bill."

She argued, a bit too strenuously, that "I'm not thinking about my reelection" in 2010. All the same, she made clear that Democratic leaders would have to give more if they want her to vote yes as the health-care debate continues. Specifically, she demanded removal of the public option. "I am opposed to a new government-administered health-care plan," she warned, further cautioning that "I will not vote in favor of the proposal . . . as it is written."

By the time this thing is done, the millions for Louisiana will look like a bargain.

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