Frist 'fills the tree'

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) moved to block Democratic amendments to the small-business health-insurance bill on the floor yesterday, probably dooming its chances of attaining cloture.

By doing so, Frist also denied Democrats an opportunity to call for votes on a series of their signature healthcare measures, including extending the sign-up period for the Medicare prescription-drug benefit and expanding research on embryonic stem cells.

As he threatened Democrats that he might, Frist “filled the tree,” a parliamentary maneuver that takes up all available slots for amendments. Frist planned to file for a cloture vote that could take place today.

Democratic support for the bill to let small businesses band together to buy large-group health insurance already was close to nil. Party leaders intimated Tuesday that “filling the tree” might prompt them to block cloture.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) complained that Democrats had been shut out. “This is healthcare week. We haven’t had healthcare minute,” he said.

If the cloture vote fails, Frist’s “Health Week” would conclude without the passage of any legislation. Bills to limit jury awards in medical malpractice cases went down to defeat Monday.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), had continually sought to alter his bill to attract Democratic votes but apparently failed to win over enough minority senators to see the measure through.

After Frist made his plans known yesterday, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said on the floor that the tactic “damages the prospects of trying to deal with the healthcare crisis.”