Villains, liars and conspiracy theories marked the 2009-10 healthcare debate

The healthcare debate of 2009-2010 had everything a movie producer craves: conflict, twists and turns and of course, a climactic ending.

For 15 months, the war of words consumed Capitol Hill.

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While the healthcare spin battle will continue into November’s elections and beyond, Congress is now moving on to the next thing. Many exhausted aides and members are thankful, but others are almost wistful, noting the sudden void in their lives.

Whether you thought the health bill was the worst thing ever concocted by man or the perfect remedy for the nation’s biggest flaw, there was consensus that the health reform debate was entertaining – and way over the top.

The rhetoric was at an all-time high on both the left and right, leading to some unusual similes and metaphors. Conservative pundit Glenn Beck compared health reform to Pearl Harbor. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said the health battle would be President Barack Obama’s “Waterloo.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) compared Republican opposition to the health legislation to the 19th century debate on slavery.

There were less serious analogies.

Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the public option was as unpopular as a “a garlic milkshake.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) likened the vote counting on overhauling the nation’s health system to a pie, saying, “You can bake the pie, you can sell the pie. But you have to have a pie to sell.”

The healthcare reform measure was the only bill passed in recent memory that passed Congress as protesters chanted the Speaker’s name (“Nancy! Nancy!”) outside the House chamber. And in apparently another first, the vice president of the United States cursed during the bill’s signing ceremony.

The healthcare saga had protagonists and antagonists for both liberals and conservatives.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s (R) “death panels” charge became a staple of the partisan skirmish while Pelosi dubbed health insurance companies “villains.”

Everything political revolved around healthcare.

Even the alleged groping by former Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) quickly became a healthcare story when he said the White House was forcing him out because he was a “no” vote on the bill.

That wasn’t the only conspiracy theory. Right-wing blogs in recent weeks, as well as Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), suggested retiring Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.) was going to vote yes on healthcare in exchange for a plum job in the Obama administration.

Tanner, who denounced the rumor, ended up voting the same way he did last year on the House healthcare bill: Nay.

Apologies surfaced from time to time. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel apologized for privately making a crude reference to the mentally handicapped to describe liberal activists who were targeting Democrats skeptical of health reform.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) apologized for his “You lie!” outburst during Obama’s healthcare address to Congress last September. Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) told Rep. Bart Stupak he was sorry for shouting “baby killer” as the Michigan Democrat defended his abortion deal with the White House.

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) said on the House floor that the Republican solution to health reform is hoping that Americans “die quickly.” Grayson refused to apologize to the GOP, but he did apologize to “the dead” for not passing health reform sooner.

The rollercoaster-like debate took a turn for the GOP amid the many back-room deals that attracted national headlines. Critics of the horse trading gave the accords catchy nicknames, such as the “Cornhusker Kickback,” “Louisiana Purchase,” “Bismarck Bank Job,” and the less impressive “Gatorade.”

Anger was a mainstay throughout the deliberations, but that had nothing to do with the several gangs who formed over the past year, including the “Gang of Six,” “Gang of 10,” and the “Stupak dozen.”

It seemed someone, or some group, was incensed at some point, including unions, Catholic bishops, C-SPAN, trial lawyers, abortion-rights groups, and countless conservatives.

Side intraparty disputes broke out, including Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) calling Blue Dog Democrats “brain-dead.” And stung by criticism from Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) on healthcare and other issues, Obama called the Judiciary Committee chairman to tell him to stop “demeaning” him.

Before most of the threats from livid citizens to members were made, lawmakers issued a few of their own ultimatums.

Last fall, House liberals wrote to Obama saying a measure without a public option “was unacceptable.” Months later, every liberal in Congress voted for such a bill.

That wasn’t the only flip-flop. After initially insisting on the public option, Obama later called it “just one sliver” of the debate, effectively killing it.

The biggest about-face occurred when Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) voted for a bill that he had called “a step in the wrong direction,” “a step toward privatization,” and an “insurance industry giveaway.”

The battle to pass healthcare reform was a test of wills that went down to the wire as House Democratic leaders scrambled to pass the bill last Sunday.

In late January, after Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts, Pelosi said one way or the other, health reform would get done: “If the gate is closed, we will go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we will pole-vault in.”

Two months later, Pelosi said, “In case you’re wondering, we went through the gate.”