In health-care deliberations, Senate is a surreal world

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 19, 2009

Midnight sessions. Testiness. Rancor. Collegial courtesies obliterated. Clerks forced to read gobbledygook legislation for hours on end as the clock ticks toward Christmas.

So goes the debate on health-care reform in an institution that boasts of being the world's greatest deliberative body. Certainly it's one of the quirkiest, governed by rules and procedures of antediluvian vintage.

The Democrats had long dreamed of having a filibuster-proof "supermajority" of 60 votes. Under Senate rules, 60 votes will be needed to close debate and then have a final yea or nay on the health-care reform bill. There are currently 58 Democrats and two independents who caucus with them.

But life at 60 has been awkward for the Democrats. The supermajority is super-fragile. That number 60 keeps toggling toward 59 as individual senators threaten to go rogue unless their demands are met.

When there's no margin of error, any senator can be king.

Republicans, meanwhile, have done everything they can, short of pulling the fire alarm, to stall what they consider to be a disastrous government intervention in the nation's health-care system. They're refusing to waive cumbersome parliamentary processes that are rarely required. Thus the Senate will convene early Saturday during what is expected to be the biggest snowstorm in years. Democrats envisage spending much of the day listening to clerks read a 500-page amendment to the health-care package.

Democrats anticipate that the GOP will insist that the full 2,000-page bill be read as well in days to come. Sessions are likely to go round-the-clock.

"I've never seen anything like this," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "They've got a strategy here -- they just want to bollix everything up. They're overplaying their hand. This is heading into the theater of the absurd."

Republicans argue that the Democrats are ramming through a huge, costly piece of legislation worked on largely in secret and shot through with accounting gimmicks.

"This is a far-left bill," said Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah). "Where have Republicans been asked to participate in this?"

Olympia J. Snowe, the Maine Republican who has been frantically wooed by Democrats, said the legislation is too important to rush. "Why not use January as an opportunity to continue work through these issues?" she asked.

The Senate is self-consciously the "upper chamber" of Congress, and has been often described as the "saucer that cools the tea," a nod to the custom of pouring the hot liquid from the cup into the saucer before imbibing. But lately it's been more like a flying saucer, carrying creatures who are strangely nocturnal and speak a language few earthlings can understand.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company