Senate Democrats look to unite against Republican floor tactics

Senate Democrats pledged a unified front against Republican amendments to the reconciliation bill, even those tailor-made for negative campaign ads.

As promised, Republicans have filed a mountain of amendments — nearly 100 at press time. They are designed to emphasize arguments against the bill — which contains the final changes to the healthcare legislation — and embarrass Democrats into voting for them.

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Democratic leaders, however, are imploring their members to resist the temptation to back the amendments, some of them what Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) termed “God, motherhood and apple pie” amendments. They argue the GOP’s aim is to torpedo the bill and send it back to the House for another vote.

If Democrats vote against the amendments, they will be on record supporting coverage of erectile dysfunction drugs for sex offenders, keeping so-called controversial deals in the bill and resisting a call for lawmakers to enroll in Medicaid.

As the “vote-o-rama” was set to begin, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) predicted his conference would hold fast.

“All the amendments, we’ll take care of,” said Reid, who charged that Republicans were not engaging in a sincere debate. “How serious could they be offering an amendment dealing with Viagra for rapists?” he said.

During a conference call Tuesday with reporters hosted by allies such as labor-affiliated Healthcare for America Now (HCAN) and the liberal advocacy group Families USA, Harkin warned Democrats not to go “wobbly in the knees.”

HCAN and Families USA are part of a coalition of 180 organizations, whose members range from healthcare industry associations to labor unions to the AARP, that sent a letter to Democratic senators today urging them to oppose all amendments to the reconciliation bill.

“A vote for any amendment is a vote against health reform” and the student loan provisions of the reconciliation bill, Harkin said. “We must make sure that none of our Democratic senators are tempted to vote for any Republican amendment.”

Harkin conceded it was possible a few Democrats might defect on certain amendments but noted the party can afford to lose a few members on a given vote and still prevail. “Since we have 59 of us, there may be a couple who peel off, but I just don’t know,” he said.

Not all of the GOP’s amendments possess shock value, however. A large number go straight to the core disputes between the two parties over healthcare.

Senate Budget Committee ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) proposed an amendment to redirect the Medicare cuts in the healthcare reform law and the reconciliation bill into the program’s trust fund, rather than using them to finance new program spending.

Other Republicans have introduced amendments to do away with the law’s individual mandate to purchase health insurance and the employer responsibility provisions of healthcare reform and to restore the spending cuts to private Medicare Advantage health plans.

Reid said the Senate was in good shape to wrap up the healthcare debate within the next few days.

A senior leadership aide said a feared weekend session has been taken off the table and final action is expected Friday night.

Votes on the amendments and the reconciliation bill cannot begin until the Senate completes 20 hours of debate required under the rules. Reid sped up the clock Tuesday morning by yielding back the Democrats’ share of the remaining time, leaving just eight hours as of roughly 9 a.m.

Nevertheless, Harkin cautioned: “We could be here all night tonight and into tomorrow.”

In addition to the amendments, Democrats face the constant specter of a successful Republican challenge that parts of the bill are not permissible under reconciliation rules that, among other things, require everything in the legislation to have a budgetary effect.

“Points of order — we’ll see what we can do,” Reid said.

Reid and other Democrats have said they went to great lengths to forestall any such challenges but acknowledge they cannot be 100 percent certain.

“We feel very comfortable and confident that we have scrubbed this bill.We have worked tirelessly,” Reid said.

J. Taylor Rushing contributed to this article.