Washington Hospital Center nurses affiliated with National Nurses United went on strike in March 2011. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

Updated 9 p.m. with correction: Orange is, in fact, a member of the Health Committee.

A D.C. Council dustup Tuesday highlighted the progress — or, rather, lack of progress — of closely watched legislation backed by the union representing nurses at several city hospitals.

National Nurses United joined Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) at the John A. Wilson Building more than a year ago to unveil the “Patient Protection Act,” a bill modeled on measures passed in California and other jurisdictions mandating nurse staffing levels at city hospitals. The legislation was necessary, Mendelson and the nurses argued, to protect patients from hospitals’ cost-cutting moves that could leave some shifts understaffed with trained nurses.

The bill was referred to the council’s Health Committee, chaired by Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), and there it has since sat. Alexander said Tuesday she has grown sympathetic to the hospital industry’s arguments against the bill: that its effects on patient safety is unproven and that increasing nurse staffing will lead to decreases in other key hospital personnel.

Enter Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), who does not sit on the Health Committee but is seeking the Democratic nomination for mayor. On Tuesday he proposed an emergency version of the Patient Protection Act, allowing it to bypass the committee process but requiring a supermajority vote of his colleagues.

That led to a tense exchange at the breakfast meeting prior to Tuesday’s council legislative meeting, where Alexander tore into Orange for playing mayoral-campaign politics with her bill. “You weren’t even at the hearing,” she told him. “You don’t play me like that.”

Orange, in the end, ended up withdrawing the emergency bill on the dais, because it would have cost the city money to implement its staffing requirements at the city-owned United Medical Center and St. Elizabeths hospitals. But he had occasion to deliver a fiery speech in front of an audience of dozens of nurses in the council chamber.

Alexander said at breakfast that the bill remains a “work in progress” and said she wanted to find a solution that “makes sense for everyone” involved. “The nurses are all or nothing,” she said at the breakfast. “They don’t even want to talk about it.”

Ken Zinn, political director for National Nurses United, said he was puzzled by that characterization. “If someone wants to put forward a proposal, we will look at it,” he said. But he added that mandatory minimum nurse staffing levels remains the sine qua non of the Patient Protection Act.

With that being the case, it looks as though compromise might be hard to find. Said Alexander, “We have to do something to work with the mandatory minimums.”

Zinn said the nurses’ union has not yet made a mayoral endorsement but one will be coming shortly.