Senators traded political barbs during the first day of the health care reconciliation debate, with Democrats claiming that Republicans were offering crassly political amendments intended for 30-second campaign ads. And the minority argued that the majority is trying to ram a bad bill with backroom deals down the American people’s throats.
After debating the bill for more than seven hours Tuesday, the Senate adjourned until 9 a.m. Wednesday. Budget reconciliation bills are limited to a total of 20 hours of debate and cannot be filibustered. However, all amendments offered are guaranteed consideration, if not an up-or-down vote.
“Senators should expect a very long day [Wednesday] with votes occurring throughout the day,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said as he closed the Senate for the night Tuesday.
One Senate Democratic leadership aide said Tuesday night that the “vote-a-rama” on amendments could start as soon as Wednesday afternoon, if both sides yield back some of the debate time. The aide would not rule out the Senate having an all-night session Wednesday and into Thursday in order to deal with the scores of amendments offered. By the end of the day Tuesday, more than 30 amendments had been offered — all, it appeared, by Republicans.
The outcome in the Senate is not in doubt. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said he has at least 51 votes to pass the reconciliation measure, which is intended to address House Democrats’ problems with the Senate bill that became law Tuesday.
Democrats said Tuesday that they are confident they will be able to beat back all amendments and believe the measure is largely immune to parliamentary budget points of order raised by Republicans. If any provision in the bill is found to be subject to a point of order, it will likely be stricken from the bill and the measure would then have to be re-passed by the House — a situation that Senate Democratic leaders are trying to avoid.
Though the Senate debate lacked the partisan intensity of the House’s weekend consideration of the Senate-passed health care bill and the reconciliation package of “fixes,” Senators on both sides of aisle challenged each others’ motives.
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) castigated Republicans for introducing dozens of what he called political amendments, arguing that the GOP was more interested in “gotcha amendments” than in legislating. “What they have done is to file, at latest count, some 22 or 24 amendments. Remember this is a reconciliation bill about reducing the budget deficit, so now I would leave it to those who are following the debate to decide whether these Republican amendments are serious efforts to address the budget deficit or something else,” Durbin argued before listing a series of questionable proposals.
For instance, Durbin attacked a Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) amendment that would bar federal funds to the community group ACORN. The embattled group announced this week that it would be shuttering its offices permanently in the next few weeks. Previous successful ACORN amendments had shut the group off from federal funding.
Durbin argued that Republicans want the Senate “to stop on this health care debate, stop this budget deficit debate and go back and flog ACORN again. … Common sense tells you that that doesn’t have a darned thing to do with health care reform or budget deficit reduction. It’s just another political amendment.”
Similarly, Durbin took issue with Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-Okla.) amendment to ban child molesters and rapists from being given insurance coverage of erectile dysfunction drugs.
“I’m not making this up. There is a fertile mind somewhere on the staff of the other side of the aisle dreaming up gotcha amendments. Here’s one, Viagra for child molesters. Let’s see if they will vote against that,'” Durbin said.
Another GOP amendment that appears designed to make Democrats uncomfortable is a Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) proposal to force a referendum on gay marriage in the District of Columbia.
Though the reconciliation bill is virtually assured of passage, Republicans railed against the measure. Coburn released a statement along with eight amendments to the bill, contending that the bill will not reduce health care costs or increase insurance coverage as Democrats promise.
“As the American people realize the extent to which their plea for common-sense reform was ignored, their demand that this bill be repealed will grow,” Coburn said. “If we can’t repeal this bill in a single vote, we’ll attempt to take it apart piece by piece, section by section, payoff by payoff and replace it with common-sense solutions that work. Beginning this week, Senators will have many, many opportunities to reconsider their stand in defense of a bill the American people begged us not to pass.”
Other GOP amendments were directed squarely at eliminating or changing the policy contained in the bill and the broader health care reform law that President Barack Obama signed on Tuesday morning.
For example, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) offered a proposal to eliminate the mandate for large employers to provide insurance coverage, and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) proposed an amendment to exempt medical equipment for those with disabilities from a new medical device tax.
“The employer mandate in the reconciliation bill will only make it more difficult for America’s businesses to hire and pay workers,” Enzi argued on the floor Tuesday evening.