Washington Sketch: Already tired of the Senate health-care reform debate

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Our leaders seem to have come down with an acute case of health-care fatigue syndrome.

They talked about health care all through the 2008 campaign. They talked about health care in the spring, health care all summer and health care all fall. There is nothing left to talk about, yet talk they must: The Senate health-care debate is scheduled to continue every day until Christmas.

But what to say? For Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the answer was "Grandma."

"Don't cut Grandma's Medicare," he pleaded on the Senate floor Tuesday morning. "If you're going to find some savings in waste, fraud and abuse in Grandma's Medicare, spend it on Grandma."

At age 69, Alexander presumably wasn't speaking of his own grandma, but he was as concerned about this unnamed matriarch as if she were his own. To "take $465 billion from Grandma's Medicare and spend it on some new program is like writing a check on an overdrawn account in a bank to buy a big new car," he reasoned.

Grandma must be hard of hearing, because Alexander repeated his plea a couple of minutes later. "Don't cut Grandma's Medicare and spend it on some new program," he counseled. "Spend it on Grandma."

In addition to her hearing problems, this grandma apparently has short-term memory loss, for Alexander, minutes later, again repeated himself. Democrats, he argued, are "cutting Grandma's Medicare and spending it on a new program."

Alexander's solicitous concern for the hypothetical old lady (Grandpa, who went unmentioned, must have been done in by the death panels) raises an important question: Can the nation stand another month of this debate?

Democrats are using the floor debate to buy time as they work behind closed doors to craft a compromise that can win the requisite 60 votes. Republicans are hoping to talk the legislation to death. The result is a desultory collection of rote talking points, dubious factual assertions and cheap demagoguery -- and there are 23 debating days left before Christmas.

In a fitting tribute to the quality of the debate, a grand total of three visitors sat in the public gallery as Tuesday's session began. The Rev. Barry Black, the Senate chaplain, prayed for the leaders as they handle the "grave questions and perplexing problems" before them. "Lord, heal the divisions which shorten the arm of our national might in this decisive season," he prayed.

Sorry, Rev.: When it comes to healing divisions, these guys haven't got a prayer.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, began the proceedings with his daily denouncement of Republicans: "betting on failure . . . prefer to close their eyes and ears . . . prefer to play politics than do what is right . . . content to just say 'no' without offering any constructive alternatives."

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