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It's time for lawmakers to let go of health-care legislation

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, March 25, 2010; A02

There's been a lot of talk about rules on Capitol Hill lately. On Wednesday, Republicans found themselves in violation of the Kenny Rogers Rule: Know when to fold 'em.

Health-care reform, love it or hate it, is now a done deal, and the finishing touches were on their way to final passage in the Senate on Wednesday night by a comfortable margin. Fanatics across the country, no doubt fired up by Republican lawmakers' overheated cries of "tyranny" and "baby killer," have begun vandalizing Democratic offices and making death threats against Democratic officeholders.

This would be a good time for sensible lawmakers to say "basta."

But "basta" is not in Sen. Tom Coburn's vocabulary. The Republican from Oklahoma proposed no fewer than 11 amendments to try to trip up the last piece of the overhaul. No. 1 on his list? Amendment 3556 to H.R. 4872: "No Erectile Dysfunction Drugs to Sex Offenders."

"If this bill goes through without this amendment, your tax dollars are going to be paying for Viagra for child molesters," Coburn, a doctor, said on the Senate floor as he introduced his E.D. rider.

The Levitra legislation did not get a rise out of Democrats. "Offering an amendment dealing with Viagra for rapists?" Majority Leader Harry Reid asked, struggling for words. "I mean, this is -- this -- this is -- this isn't serious."

Even Reid (D-Nev.) probably doesn't favor sex-offender Cialis, but Democrats had no choice but to lay this one on the table. The adoption of any amendment, even one that would prevent rapists from getting help for erectile dysfunction, would doom the whole thing, and the majority was determined to vote each one down.

Hence the attempt to amend the health-care law with a proposal to force the District to have a referendum on same-sex marriage -- the brainchild of Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) -- and the amendment by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) requiring the government to defund the now-defunct ACORN.

The shenanigans spread beyond the floor. For the second day in a row, Republicans employed procedural objections to block committees from meeting. The five hearings canceled Wednesday included one by the Armed Services Committee to take testimony from military commanders who had flown in from South Korea, Hawaii and Nebraska -- and now had to twiddle their thumbs.

The committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), went to the floor to urge the Republicans to relent. He pointed out that Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the top Republican on the panel, joined in the plea.

"I would have to object," responded Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.).

Levin took his case to the press gallery. "The idea that the Republicans, out of pique, would deny us the opportunity to have this hearing," he said, "is pointless and blind obstructionism. . . . This has nothing to do with health care. It has everything to do with the security of this nation."

Republicans also shut down a Homeland Security subcommittee hearing on police training in Afghanistan. The chairman of that panel, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), went to the floor to vent. "Somebody has got to explain this to me," she demanded.

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) didn't wait for an explanation. He and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) "went rogue," as McCaskill put it, ignoring the objections and holding their subcommittee hearing anyway.

But other objections from opponents of the health-care legislation can't be so easily ignored, because they're coming in the form of hurled objects. Bricks were reportedly thrown through windows in Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter's office in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Similar incidents occurred in Arizona, Kansas and Ohio. In Virginia, a gas line to the home of the brother of Rep. Tom Perriello (D) was cut after a conservative activist posted the address online, mistakenly thinking it was the congressman's house.

Democratic leaders said 10 lawmakers had been offered increased security after various death threats, including the image of gallows and a noose sent to the office of Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.). The hanging apparatus had Stupak's name on it, and the drawing had the message "All baby killers come to unseemly ends." Stupak was the antiabortion Democrat speaking on the House floor when Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Tex.) shouted "baby killer."

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) issued a statement Wednesday urging people to register their objections "the right way."

That's a nice thought, but if Boehner were serious about cooling tempers, he would have stopped members of his caucus from going onto the House balcony during Sunday's health-care debate, waving flags and posters and pumping their fists in the air to rile up demonstrators. He might also have some words with the Republican National Committee, which, even after Democrats complained, continued on Wednesday to operate a Web site, FireNancyPelosi.com, showing an image of the House speaker surrounded by flames.

If Republican lawmakers really want their supporters to cool it, they'll have to calm themselves. Maybe Dr. Coburn, after his brave stand on Viagra, can prescribe his colleagues some Xanax.

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