Senators cast words, not votes, in debate on healthcare reform

The Senate debate on healthcare reform has so far consisted of a war of words between Democrats and Republicans — and nothing else.

After three days, the long-awaited floor debate has had plenty of back-and-forth speechifying between the two parties, but no votes on amendments.

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The two sides played to type: Democrats blamed Republican obstructionism while Republicans maintained they only want to ensure a full debate on such a major bill. 

Democrats responded with threats to keep the Senate in session all the way to Christmas and beyond; Republicans made clear by their actions they see no rush to let the legislation approach the finish line.

The Senate has debated at great length two proposed changes to the bill: Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMcCain rips Trump for attacks on press NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Meghan McCain says her father regrets opposition to MLK Day MORE’s (R-Ariz.) motion to send the bill back to the Senate Finance Committee so that more than $400 billion in Medicare spending cuts can be removed from the legislation; and Sen. Barbara MikulskiBarbara MikulskiClinton: White House slow-walking Russia sanctions Top Lobbyists 2017: Hired Guns Gore wishes Mikulski a happy birthday at 'Inconvenient Sequel' premiere MORE’s (D-Md.) amendment promoting insurance coverage of breast cancer screening. But they have not been able to hold a vote on either one, nor on alternatives sponsored, respectively, by Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetDurbin: Senators to release immigration bill Wednesday Trump's 's---hole' controversy shows no sign of easing Dem senator: 'No question' Trump's 's---hole countries' comment is racist MORE (D-Colo.) and Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiSessions torched by lawmakers for marijuana move Calif. Republican attacks Sessions over marijuana policy Trump's executive order on minerals will boost national defense MORE (R-Alaska), because the party leaders have yet to reach an agreement for votes on the amendments.

“Unless the Republican leadership comes forward with a reasonable approach to these amendments, I think our patience is wearing thin,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinMcCarthy: ‘No deadline on DACA’ Ex-Sheriff David Clarke: Trump only one who 'cares about black American citizens' DHS chief takes heat over Trump furor MORE (D-Ill.). “We’re just not going to sit here forever and watch this bill go down.”

Without an agreement from the minority, Democrats would either have to file cloture on each amendment, a process that takes days and requires 60 votes, or move to table the amendments, a procedural move that requires only 51 votes but that traditionally has been viewed by senators as harsh.

With Congress’s scheduled winter holiday recess fast approaching, the slow start to the floor debate — not to mention unresolved policy issues dividing Democrats — threatens the Democratic leadership’s plan to get the bill passed before the year ends. Democratic senators said they were ready to stay in session as long as it takes.

“The Republican leadership is stalling us, so we have decided we are going right through Christmas,” said Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonSenate campaign fundraising reports roll in Week ahead: Tech giants to testify on extremist content Puerto Rico's children need recovery funds MORE (D-Fla.).
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom HarkinThomas (Tom) Richard HarkinOrrin Hatch, ‘a tough old bird,’ got a lot done in the Senate Democrats are all talk when it comes to DC statehood The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (D-Iowa) predicted Democrats would meet their target despite the sluggish floor debate. “We’re going to get this done before the new year comes in. In fact, I think we’re going to get it done before Christmas,” Harkin said. Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDems search for winning playbook Dems face hard choice for State of the Union response The Memo: Immigration battle tests activists’ muscle MORE (D-Nev.) has already warned senators that he plans to keep the Senate in session at night and on weekends.

Reid planned to hold votes on two first two amendments and two substitute amendments Wednesday afternoon, but Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSessions: 'We should be like Canada' in how we take in immigrants NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Overnight Finance: Lawmakers see shutdown odds rising | Trump calls for looser rules for bank loans | Consumer bureau moves to revise payday lending rule | Trump warns China on trade deficit MORE (R-Ky.) objected Tuesday evening.

Republicans deny their intention is to stymie debate on the legislation, though a GOP leadership aide said their aim is to ensure that the healthcare reform bill is on the floor for at least as long as the several weeks Reid spent behind closed doors merging the bills approved by the Finance and HELP committees. The aide also noted that the Democratic Conference has 60 members and should be capable of overcoming any minority objections and that

Democrats would move to table the amendments.

Democrats are strongly leaning toward moving to table the amendments if Republicans continue to object to holding votes, according to Harkin. “I just think that we’re going to have to, at some point, say enough is enough on the stall and we’re going to have to start voting; we’ll probably be tabling amendments,” he said.

Republicans are unlikely to make it easy for the Democrats to move ahead, especially if they listen to the message from an internal memo distributed by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who is a long way removed from his one-time status as President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaMcCarthy: ‘No deadline on DACA’ Democrats will need to explain if they shut government down over illegal immigration Trump’s first year in office was the year of the woman MORE’s nominee to be Commerce secretary.

The Gregg memo outlines numerous methods Republicans can use to delay or derail legislation on the Senate floor. “I think that we can all agree that the Democrats’ bill is the wrong choice for our nation,” Gregg wrote his GOP colleagues Tuesday. “Therefore, it is imperative that our voices are heard during this debate.

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“We have certain rights before measures are considered on the floor as well as certain rights during the actual consideration of measures. Every Republican senator should be familiar with the scope of these rights, which serve to protect our ability to speak on behalf of the millions of Americans who depend on us to be their voice during this historic debate.”

The memo itself consists of a laundry list of mechanisms — some well-know, some obscure — through which the minority party in the Senate can slow the pace of debate on legislation or even grind it to a halt, all the way from the time before a bill hits the floor through the debate and amendment process up until the Senate considers a House-Senate conference report on legislation headed to the president.

“The Senate rules are designed to give a minority of senators the right to insist on a full, complete and fully informed debate on all measures and issues coming before the Senate,” the memo says.