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An ugly finale for health-care reform

By Dana Milbank
Monday, December 21, 2009; 2:00 AM

Going into Monday morning's crucial Senate vote on health-care legislation, Republican chances for defeating the bill had come down to a last, macabre hope. They needed one Democratic senator to die -- or at least become incapacitated.

At 4 p.m. Sunday afternoon -- nine hours before the 1 a.m. vote that would effectively clinch the legislation's passage -- Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) went to the Senate floor to propose a prayer. "What the American people ought to pray is that somebody can't make the vote tonight," he said. "That's what they ought to pray."

It was difficult to escape the conclusion that Coburn was referring to the 92-year-old, wheelchair-bound Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) who has been in and out of hospitals and lay at home ailing. It would not be easy for Byrd to get out of bed in the wee hours with deep snow on the ground and ice on the roads -- but without his vote, Democrats wouldn't have the 60 they needed.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the number-two Democratic leader, went to the floor to complain about Coburn's unholy prayer, which followed an unsuccessful request from Democrats for an earlier vote because of Byrd's "significant health problems." Said Durbin: "When it reaches a point where we're praying, asking people to pray, that senators wouldn't be able to answer the roll call, I think it has crossed the line."

Actually, the line was crossed long ago, during the summer of death panels and socialists. But Democrats weren't in the best position to take the high road Sunday evening. One of their own members, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) had just delivered an overwrought jeremiad comparing the Republicans to Nazis on Kristallnacht, lynch mobs of the South, and bloodthirsty crowds of the French Revolution.

"Too many colleagues are embarked on a desperate, no-holds-barred mission of propaganda, obstruction and fear," he said. "History cautions us of the excesses to which these malignant, vindictive passions can ultimately lead. Tumbrils have rolled through taunting crowds. Broken glass has sparkled in darkened streets. Strange fruit has hung from southern trees." Assuming the role of Old Testament prophet, Whitehouse promised a "day of judgment" and a "day of reckoning" for Republicans.

The day's ugly words were a fitting finale for the whole sorry health-care debate of 2009. Democrats have finally -- and after jettisoning any trace of government-run health care while swallowing new abortion restrictions -- found their way to success; the overnight vote proves they have the numbers to prevail in the remaining votes this week. But it certainly wasn't pretty.

Senate Democratic leaders made the bill fit their fiscal requirements with a series of budgetary gimmicks, and even then the final cost estimate didn't instill confidence. The Congressional Budget Office sent lawmakers a letter on Sunday saying it goofed and overstated the cost savings from the bill by half a trillion dollars. Then there were the goodies given out to buy the votes of Democratic holdouts, most notably Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), who got a "Cornhusker kickback" in the form of an extra $100 million in Medicaid payments for his state. On the Senate floor Saturday, Republicans forced Democrats into the embarrassing position of objecting to similar payouts to the other 49 states.

But all of that put together wasn't quite as noxious as the two sentences that escaped Coburn's lips on the Senate floor. The Oklahoman, who led the effort last week to stall proceedings by forcing an hours-long reading of legislative language, had already lobbed a grenade onto the floor when he said that, because of the legislation, Medicare recipients are "going to die sooner."

On Saturday, Coburn likened the current situation to the period preceding the Civil War. "The crisis of confidence in this country is now at an apex that has not seen in over 150 years, and that lack of confidence undermines the ability of legitimate governance," he said. "There's a lot of people out there today who...will say, 'I give up on my government,' and rightly so."

Earlier Sunday, Coburn, a medical doctor by training, held another news conference and accused Democrats of "corruption" in drafting the bill. He then went out onto the floor two hours later to discuss his prayer that one of the Democrats wouldn't make it to the chamber. A few days earlier, Republican Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Sam Brownback (Kansas) joined a public prayer for the bill's defeat -- but Coburn, as usual, went further.

Durbin, learning of Coburn's prayer, went to the floor 45 minutes later to challenge him to a rhetorical duel. Coburn declined to return. "I don't think we should be wishing misfortune on either side of the aisle," Durbin said of his absent colleague.

Coburn was wearing blue jeans, an argyle sweater and a tweed jacket with elbow patches when he walked back into the chamber a few minutes before 1 a.m. He watched without expression when Byrd was wheeled in, dabbing his eyes and nose with tissues, his complexion pale. When his name was called, Byrd shot his right index finger into the air as he shouted "aye," then pumped his left fist in defiance.

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