Finance Committee healthcare markup resumes with procedural spat

Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee made a big stink Wednesday morning that Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) won't break with the panel's rules during the mark up of his healthcare bill.

Unlike most congressional committees, the Finance panel does not take up technical legislative language when it writes a bill. Instead, the committee -- which has jurisdiction over healthcare, taxes and a host of other issues -- votes on so-called conceptual language, which is later converted into the official bill text.

Republicans don't dispute that this is true. But that want to make an exception and insist that the Finance Committee not act until it has the complete legislative text and a full budget estimate. It's merely in the spirit of President Barack Obama's promises of transparent government, offered Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

"We've never, ever, ever, ever done that in this committee," Baucus protested.

Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said that this bill is special. "I don't consider this inordinate," Grassley said, though it's hard to imagine him embracing the idea during the years he chaired the committee.

"The reason that this committee writes its legislation in plain English is so that members can understand it and the public can understand it," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who eventually lost his temper during the drawn-out bickering and started reading an inscrutable excerpt from another bill. Legislative language reads like "gobbledygook," said Conrad. As Budget Committee chairman, Conrad knows from bills that read like gobbledygook.

Why not scrap the whole practice permanently -- starting today, Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) asked.

The switch would prolong the process of moving the bill by two to three weeks, he said. Democrats pointed to the Medicare prescription drug bill in 2003, the tax cuts passed in 2001 and the tax reform bill of 1986 as examples of huge legislation that passed through the Finance Committee under normal procedures.

Slowing the bill down is basically the point of Sen. Jim Bunning's (R- Ky.) amendment, Democrats charged. "This is fundamentally a delay tactic," said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

There will be a final cost estimate of this bill before senators voted on it, Baucus pledged, also noting that he has released the text of his draft legislation, all the amendments and a plethora of other information about the legislation. He even offered his amendment putting into words his promise that the full contextual text of the bill and a complete budgetary score would be published online before senators voted.

But because the Finance Committee's bill has to be combined with separate, and partially overlapping, legislation already approved by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, Republicans complained that nobody could really know what was going to be in the final package until it hits the Senate floor. Three Republicans and one Democrat on the Finance Committee are also members of the HELP Committee.

As usual, all eyes were on Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), the only Republican seen as gettable by Democrats. Not this time: "I certainly support this amendment ... that we didn't do it before is not a rationale for not doing it now." she said. "If it takes two more weeks, it takes two more weeks."

This went on for about an hour and a half. At no point did they debate the merits of the $900 billion bill before them that would overhaul the U.S. healthcare system. Eventually, Bunning's amendment failed -- though it did nab the support of one Democrat, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) -- and Baucus's amendment was adopted on a party-line vote, bringing healthcare reform one small step closer, apparently.