Author: Mike Allen
Posted on December 21, 2009
Publication: PoliticoWith victory finally in sight, Senate Democrats want to ram health care reform through the chamber with as little debate as possible. Republicans say they’ll slow the votes down as much as the arcane rules will allow — until 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve, under current plans.
Three votes are required to get the bill off the Senate floor. All could be done in one day, but Republicans say they’re going to do what in union terms would be called “working to the rule” — requiring 30 hours (including one “intervening day”) before the votes.
Depending on your point of view, that’s either 90 hours of fruitless debate on a measure sure to pass, or an extra week of scrutiny for the biggest bill Congress has passed since creating Medicare in 1965.
“If this was a good, solid bill that people liked, we could lay it out and do it in January,” said a Senate Republican leadership aide. “If it’s going to die because it waits a week, maybe it should die.”
The Senate is plunging ahead with a schedule for this week that would look preposterous to an outsider: The first vote was planned for 1 a.m. Monday. The second is to be 1 p.m. Wednesday, and the final one will be at 7 p.m. Thursday, literally the night before Christmas.
White House and Democratic officials defend the pre-Christmas push, saying they need to do it this way to accomplish President Barack Obama’s top legislative goal. Their reasons:
• Legislation is about momentum. If the latest compromise is allowed to languish over Christmas, it could fall apart. And if the process stops, it may never start again.
• A sense of urgency: Lawmakers only make hard choices with their backs against a wall. Big votes are almost always jammed up against a deadline for getting out of town.
• Obama and congressional Democrats ran on competence, and they need to get this done. It’s getting embarrassing after eight months of maneuvering.
• The White House and Democratic leaders want to pivot to jobs and deficit reduction with Obama’s State of the Union address, in late January or early February.
• It’s going to take some time to unify the House and Senate bills, anyway. If the Senate isn’t finished with its version, the process could drag on for months longer.
• Democrats need as long as possible to sell and explain the bill before midterm elections in November. White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel wanted a full year to educate voters, so the party is already behind.
Democrats insist Republicans could make this week’s votes go faster. The timeline distributed by the Senate Democratic leadership notes pointedly: “This schedule can be sped up if the Republicans decide to cooperate and yield back time rather than delaying and forcing 30 hours to be expended on each cloture motion.”
But if Republicans really stick to the current schedule, and they insist firmly that they plan to, that’s going to be mean havoc for congressional staff and support workers: a lot of Christmas Eve services missed and nonrefundable tickets home that will be suddenly worthless.
That means a ferocious messaging battle will be fought this week. Republicans admit they have no apparent hope of stopping the measure, so will the public see them as obstructionist?
Or will the GOP break through with its argument that Democrat leaders are rushing to pass the bill before the American people — or even most senators — can find out what’s in it?
“This is a political kamikaze mission toward a historic mistake,” Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, said on the ABC News webcast “Top Line.” “We’re ready to stay till Valentine’s Day if we need to.”
Senate Democrats and the White House, which embraces the full-speed-ahead strategy, may even be sacrificing their holy grail of bipartisanship in order to get the vote over with. Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, the Republican considered most likely to break ranks and support the bill, says the schedule doesn’t allow enough time to satisfy her objections.
“I said to the president, and I said to the Senate majority leader and others, ‘Please give us the time,’” Snowe said on CBS’s “Face the Nation. “This is a generational issue. ... We’re treating it as if it’s legislative appropriations at the end of the year. It’s like the last train leaving the station — we’re going to dump everything in there.”
Hold the crocodile tears, say Democrats, who are convinced that Republicans are never going to be supportive, no matter how long the process drags out.
White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said it’s “hard to take this critique seriously from the folks who jammed through Medicare [prescription drug coverage] and several budget-busting tax packages in a fraction of the time spent on health care reform this year.
“We have debated this for months, held weeks of hearings, and have been talking about health care for decades,” Pfeiffer said. “It’s time to act.”