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GOP Quickly Goes to War

Senate Republicans may not have the physical numbers to filibuster the Democrats’ health care reform bill, but they have wasted little time in using the Senate’s rules to their utmost advantage in their quest to trip up consideration of the measure.

In their first shot at the measure this week, Republicans decided to try to strike at the heart of how Democrats plan to pay for the $848 billion measure by attempting to eliminate the proposal’s almost $440 billion in Medicare cuts.

But instead of offering a conventional amendment, they decided to use an esoteric procedural tactic that would send the bill back to committee with instructions to eliminate the cuts. If successful, the GOP’s gambit would force Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to use time-consuming procedures and hold another filibuster-killing vote on whether to restart debate on the bill.

Republicans said they are likely to use the procedural tactic repeatedly during debate this month as they seek to make the point that the Senate should go back to the drawing board on the health care bill. But Democrats said the strategy is just another way Republicans are attempting to delay the measure.

“Rather than kill the whole bill, just send it back to [committee] and tell them to eliminate these cuts and send it back to us,— said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who offered the Medicare motion to commit.

He said he decided against using a traditional amendment strategy on the Medicare issue because, “We want to start over, you know?—

McCain said he was operating at the request of Senate GOP leaders, but Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to say how often Republicans might use the procedural tactic.

“You know I’m not going to answer the question of what comes next,— McConnell said. “The American people expect us to try to stop this bill and to start over with something more acceptable to them.—

GOP aides said the tactic would certainly be used again, but they declined to detail which issues Republicans would employ it on. However, aides said Medicare certainly would be a recurring theme on the floor for Republicans.

Democrats charged that Republicans are trying to kill the bill with Senate procedures.

“If we take this bill off the floor, which many Republicans want us to do, it will take us days, maybe a week to bring it back to the floor,— Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said on the floor Tuesday. “They want to delay this as long as possible. They want us to fail. They want us to stop.—

One senior Senate Democratic aide said the maneuvering proved that Republicans are not serious about health reform.

“If they had a genuine policy proposal to improve the bill’s Medicare provisions, they would have drafted their ideas as an amendment to the bill,— the aide said. “But they didn’t offer any proposal for how they would address those important issues. This decision to offer no substantive amendments and instead use procedural motions to kill the bill is merely a cynical ploy by a party that is bankrupt of ideas.—

[IMGCAP(1)]With Republicans planning to use the Medicare cuts — which Democrats said will come from eliminating fraud and abuse in the program ­— as one of their central messages on the bill, using a motion to commit instead of an amendment provides the minority with a few advantages in the debate.

A motion to commit makes it more difficult for Democrats to offer alternatives and makes it more likely Republicans will get an up-or-down vote on the issue they want to vote on.

Perhaps the greatest benefit would come if Republicans could actually win the vote. Because a motion to commit removes the bill from the Senate floor and sends it back to committee, the majority would have to repeat the time-consuming process of beginning debate on the bill all over again. Before Thanksgiving, it took several days for Reid to bring up a procedural motion designed to start debate on the bill. Because of a threatened GOP filibuster, Reid needed — and would need again — all 60 members of the Democratic Conference to vote to proceed to the measure. The Republican Conference boasts only 40 members, one short of the number needed to filibuster a bill.

The intense partisanship of the fight over the GOP’s Medicare motion spilled onto the floor and into the hallways of the Capitol on Tuesday.

McCain and Durbin sparred on the floor over whether Durbin had promptly yielded to McCain, when the former 2008 Republican presidential nominee took exception to the Whip’s description of his proposal.

Reid also took McCain to task for having proposed similar cuts to Medicare when he was running for president last year.

“The sponsor of the amendment, during his presidential campaign, talked about cutting these monies,— Reid told reporters Tuesday. “And in addition to that, he voted for, when the Republicans were in power, an amendment that took exactly that amount of money out of Medicare. So I think he better get his reasoning straightened out, because this is a huge, big belly-flop flip-flop.—

McCain, however, insisted he had not proposed slashing Medicare on the campaign trail.

“I never proposed cuts in Medicare. I proposed savings,— McCain told reporters.

Republicans are also attempting to blunt the force of the Democratic message machine during the health care debate, which Reid hopes to wrap up before Christmas.

With the Democratic National Committee, the White House and Reid’s “war room— working round the clock to counter GOP attacks on Reid’s health care bill, McConnell has launched his own rapid-response effort.

Starting Tuesday, the Senate Republican Communications Center, McConnell’s version of Reid’s war room, began a rapid-response plan based on the GOP’s efforts during the fight over Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination, GOP aides said.

During that debate, McConnell’s staff sought to rebut Sotomayor’s testimony, as well as statements by Democratic lawmakers in favor of her nomination.

For the duration of the health care debate, McConnell’s office will take a similar approach, providing real-time rebuttals to Democrats’ floor statements and amendments.

For instance, the SRCC dinged statements by Reid and Durbin arguing Reid’s bill will “save Medicare,— rebutted Sen. Barbara Boxer’s (D-Calif.) claim that Americans back the reforms with Gallup poll numbers, and culled together a series of old statements by Reid and others defending Medicare from “immoral— cuts to defend the GOP’s opposition to the bill.

John Stanton contributed to this report.

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