Dems worried that Frist will blunt their healthcare strategy

As debate on a small-business health-insurance bill opened on the Senate floor yesterday, Democrats were concerned that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) would employ a rare parliamentary maneuver to block their amendments and their attempts to make some election-year political hay out of the issue.

Senate Democrats have been planning to use Frist’s “Health Week” as an opportunity to raise several healthcare-related issues, an effort to highlight their policy proposals in an area that has historically favored Democrats.

“I understand [Frist is] not going to allow any amendments,” Minority Leader Harry Reid (R-Nev.) said Monday. Frist “indicated” to the Democratic leadership that he might “fill the tree,” Reid spokesman Jim Manley said yesterday.

By “filling the tree,” Frist would use his special floor privileges as majority leader to raise amendments continually, including second-degree amendments to language offered by other Republicans, in order to prevent Democrats from bringing their own to the floor.

Democrats have prepared numerous amendments, such as one to extend the enrollment deadline for the Medicare prescription-drug benefit past next Monday. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) touted a deadline extension in floor remarks yesterday.

Republicans have remained mum about their floor strategy for the bill, which is sponsored by Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).

Senate Democrats have decried Health Week as a sham and accused Frist of bringing bills to the floor that he knows will fail.

In addition, Democrats have used the occasion to highlight issues not addressed by the Enzi bill or the medical-liability bills that went down to defeat Monday, such as extending the Medicare deadline, permitting the importation of prescription drugs from Canada and expanding federal funding for embryonic-stem-cell research.

The floor strategy is “completely up in the air right now,” a HELP Committee spokesman said yesterday. Frist’s office did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Stymieing Democratic attempts to use the Senate Republicans’ primary healthcare vehicle to highlight the differences between the two parties on the issue could kill the chances of a successful cloture vote.

In recent years, when Frist or former Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) employed (or threatened) this “filling the tree” tactic, they raised Democratic hackles in the Senate, which usually operates more openly.

The prospects for the underlying bill already are shaky, however.

The measure would permit trade associations to pool small businesses into large groups to negotiate discounts on health insurance. Opponents maintain that these insurance plans would be partially exempted from state laws guaranteeing coverage for diseases such as diabetes and cancer and laws governing insurance premiums.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) plans to offer an amendment designed to address the disease-coverage issue.

“I believe my amendment can serve as a foundation for building the bipartisan support necessary for the Senate to pass a bill that will allow small businesses to afford insurance for their employees,” Snowe said in a statement yesterday.

Enzi continues to try to strike a deal with both Democrats and Republicans who have concerns about his legislation and is hopeful he can satisfy his fellow Republicans while attracting enough Democratic votes to move the legislation ahead, his spokesman said.

But in the weeks leading up to the floor debate, Democrats have given no indication that they would be willing to help the majority achieve a legislative victory on the hot-button healthcare issue during an election year.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the ranking member of the HELP Committee, summarized the Democrats’ objections to the bill at a rally yesterday morning.

“Its supporters say that the legislation is about helping small business, but the legislation the Senate considers today isn’t an advance — it’s a retreat. It’s a retreat from our commitment to cancer. It’s a retreat from our commitment to diabetes. It’s a retreat from our commitment to mental-health parity,” he said, according to his prepared remarks.