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They're talking about you, Grandma

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."

The minority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), sat with lips pursed and tapped on his BlackBerry as Reid spoke. Then, he stood for what his office said was his 68th speech decrying the Democrats' health-care plan. This time, he labeled the bill a "monumental, 2,074-page scheme that would expand the reach of government deeper into our lives, raise taxes, increase health-care premiums and cut Medicare for seniors."

Completing the farce was the man in the presiding officer's chair, identified by the clerk as "the Honorable Roland W. Burris." The senator from Blagojevich, freshly reprimanded by the Senate ethics committee, wore a bright red tie, a big red pocket handkerchief and a smile that got bigger each time a speaker referred to him as "Mr. President."

While the Senate plodded through its endless debate, the House, which has passed its health-care bill, marked time by naming and renaming post offices. Also on the House's agenda for the day: H.Res. 742, "Congratulating the Warner Robins Little League softball team," and H.Res 743, "Honoring the life of Frank McCourt for his many contributions to American literature, education, and culture."

With well-rehearsed precision, Senate Democrats rolled out the day's debating theme: "It saves lives, it saves money," reported Reid.

"It's going to save lives. It's going to save money," echoed Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

"Brings down insurance premiums," announced Reid.

"Premiums will be reduced," seconded Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

Republicans retaliated with their own mindless recitations. "A half-a-trillion-dollar cut to Medicare," alleged McConnell.

"About $500 billion in Medicare cuts," contributed Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).

Added Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.): "If you're a senior and you're on Medicare, you better be afraid of this bill."

Never mind that the man leading the rebellion against the Medicare cuts, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), had proposed larger cuts when he was the party's 2008 presidential nominee. The Republicans were not trying to persuade with logic. They were trying to bury the bill with words.

"The American people want us to start over from the beginning," proposed McConnell.

"We need to start over," Alexander agreed.

No! End this debate, and soon. For Grandma's sake.

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