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 McCain’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 Mikulski’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 Bennet (D-Colo.) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (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 Durbin (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 Nelson (D-Fla.).
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (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 Reid (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 McConnell (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 Obama’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.