Healthcare legislation fatigue spreading quickly among Capitol Hill insiders

Healthcare fatigue syndrome has spread through the Capitol like a strain of the flu. But unlike the flu, there is no vaccine.

The only remedy, at least for Democrats, comes in the form of numbers: 218 and 60.

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Lawmakers, staffers and reporters walking around Capitol Hill are exhausted as Democratic leaders try to rustle up the 218 votes in the House and 60 votes in the Senate to pass President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform overhaul.

Congress thrives on dealing with various high-profile issues simultaneously. But in the fall of 2009, it’s healthcare 24/7.

Earlier this year, White House officials deflected criticism of their vast agenda by saying they could walk and chew gum. Over the last few months, however, Democrats have stopped juggling as legislation on transportation, trade, immigration reform and climate change have been punted to 2010 to make way for the massive healthcare push.

The daily grind of delivering floor speeches, holding intra-party caucus meetings and cranking out front-page news stories on healthcare reform has left many on Capitol Hill in a general daze.

Some frustrated staffers walk zombie-like through the corridors of Congress with bloodshot eyes.

One congressional leadership aide, who sneaked away for a rare 20-minute break outside in the fresh air, tossed his hands up, shook his head and vented about playing endless defense against he said/she said “developments” reported by a media starving for any healthcare news.

“I can’t read; I can’t operate my BlackBerry because my brain is physically so overloaded that I shut down at 4 p.m. on Fridays. It literally takes me until Sunday to be able to function again,” the staffer said, laughing. “I have the Capitol Hill flu.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) late last week sighed heavily on the House floor during a discussion with Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on the timing of a vote. He is not the only member who has been expressing exasperation.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) growled on Tuesday morning that he had “endured” four weeks of meetings in the health committee and two weeks in the Finance Committee, all for naught.

“It’s flawed because the real bill is going to be written behind closed doors,” Hatch said.

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It took more than 61 hours and 31 meetings with the “Gang of Six” to win one GOP vote for a bill that had been under consideration in the committee for eight days, according to Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

There are countless closed-door meetings on what will be in the healthcare bill and what will be removed, and constant questions aimed at lawmakers coming out of those briefings.

But after months of such exhausting conversations, the time for those meetings is over, according to one Democratic lawmaker.

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) said, “It’s time to vote. As they say in the vernacular, let’s get it on.”

Asked whether the Capitol Hill community was suffering from healthcare fatigue, Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) chuckled.

“Oh, gosh, yes!” he said. Terry, an Energy and Commerce Committee member, persevered through hours of in-the-weeds healthcare discussions when the panel marked up its bill before the August recess.

Part of the reason for the healthcare fatigue is the complexity of the issues, which range from the sustainable growth rate to dual-eligibles to diagnosis-related groups.

Members on committees of jurisdiction are familiar with these eye-glazing terms, but with healthcare reform dominating Capitol Hill, more legislators are learning the complicated, acronym-laden healthcare argot.