In health-care deliberations, Senate is a surreal world

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 19, 2009; A01

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.

Thus it was that the Democrats gathered mysteriously in the Senate chamber early Thursday evening. Reporters wondered: What's going on? Finally, Reid spoke: He moved to adjourn the Senate until 12:01 a.m. -- the middle of the night, literally -- at which point the Democrats would hold a vote to close debate on a Pentagon funding bill that was impeding progress on the health-care bill.

The video monitors in the press gallery flashed the bulletin: "There will be a roll call vote at 1:01 a.m. on the motion to invoke cloture on the House message with respect to HR 3386, the DoD Appropriations bill."

Senators then scattered for the evening -- one said she would see "Twilight" with a daughter, noting that it was appropriate to see a movie about vampires -- and then returned as Thursday became Friday. All 60 in the Democratic caucus, including the ailing Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.), who arrived to an ovation, had to show up to end the filibuster on the Pentagon bill.

Reid is racing through a parliamentary maze to get a health-care vote by 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve. To make that happen, he has scheduled a series of middle-of-the-night and early-morning votes. He has spent untold hours cajoling senators, trying to nudge the 59 all the way to 60.

The pivotal figure at this precise second is Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson, a bulldog of a senator who opposes abortion and wants the health bill to specify that no federal money can go to such ends. Earlier in the week, pestered about his intentions, he repeatedly said he was studying proposed language in the bill, but by Thursday night he shifted to fiscal concerns, saying, "We don't even have the numbers back from CBO."

That would be the Congressional Budget Office. Notice the absence of any mention of abortion. Significant? Or would that be reading too much into a passing comment as the guy was racing into a party caucus?

There are deals in the wind, strategies for placation. Senators have already laced the legislation with pet projects for their home states, like $100 million for Medicaid that helped the attitude of Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu.

This week Roland Burris, the Illinois Democrat appointed under controversial circumstances to fill the Senate seat of Barack Obama, said his vote remains in doubt until "cost, competition and accountability" are addressed in the health-care bill.

"As Mohandas Gandhi once famously said, 'All compromise is based on give-and-take, but there can be no give-and-take on fundamentals. Any compromise on mere fundamentals is a surrender,' " Burris said.

Bernard Sanders, the "democratic socialist" from Vermont, told reporters in a Capitol corridor, "I'm not onboard yet." Sanders has pushed a single-payer system, "Medicare for all."

Joseph I. Lieberman, the independent from Connecticut, has become for Democrats the official skunk at the party. Lieberman has vowed not to vote in favor of any form of government-funded health insurance and effectively torpedoed a compromise measure that would have opened Medicare to certain Americans as young as 55.

Lieberman discovered to his great surprise how the tension of recent weeks has altered the Senate. Holding forth on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon, he reached his time limit and made a routine request for an additional moment to speak. Presiding was the freshman senator from Minnesota, Al Franken. Party leaders had told him to be strict about time limits. Franken said, "I object."

"Really???" Lieberman said, astonished.

He didn't take it personally, and later said he realized Franken was just following orders. But the incident raised the hackles of Republican John McCain (Ariz.), who sensed comity going out the window.

"I don't know what's happening here in this body, but I think it's wrong," McCain said. "I'll tell you, I have never seen a member denied an extra minute or so, as the chair just did."

What's happened is that there is no such thing anymore as a routine "unanimous consent" request. That notion died on Wednesday, when Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, used his senatorial prerogative to insist upon the line-by-line reading of Sanders's 767-page, single-payer amendment. Three hours of droning by clerks later, Sanders had to pull his amendment.

Later, Illinois Democrat Richard J. Durbin said he'd found irrefutable evidence that Republicans had no goal other than to delay a vote on health care. His people had intercepted a Twitter message authored by a Republican senator that revealed an obstructionist intent.

"I have in my hand," Durbin told assembled journalists, "a smoking tweet."

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