Custom Search

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Hoyer Warns GOP: Tone Down Rhetoric, Senate Fight Looms

GOP Gears Up For Senate Theatrics

So much for the “Nuclear” Senate showdown.

After President Barack Obama’s showy Tuesday signing ceremony, the Senate’s cleanup work this week on health care is looking more like a political strategy session, as each party tries to cement public impressions of the bill.

“It’s going to pass here,” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said matter-of-factly. “It’s a matter of what amendments [Democrats] want to be for and what they’re not.”

To be sure, Republicans have lined up a bundle of politically embarrassing amendments and plan to wreak all sorts of procedural havoc.

“I think there’s going to be long nights, and there’s going to be anger and demagoguery from the Republicans,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “But I think the outcome is pretty clear.”

So at this point, Republicans are simply going to continue with their key themes: that the new law will drastically cut Medicare, increase taxes and expand the government’s ballooning budget deficit.

And as Democrats try to downplay the bill as mere “fixes” to the law and vow to kill all GOP amendments, Republicans are inflating the measure’s importance by arguing it would make even more draconian changes to the newly enacted law.

Republicans are challenging several provisions with the Senate’s parliamentarian, Alan Frumin, on the grounds that they violate the so-called Byrd rule — named after Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) — which prohibits the addition of extraneous items to budget legislation. Republicans are also pushing uncomfortable amendments, including one by Coburn that prohibits sex offenders from being prescribed drugs for erectile dysfunction.

And Republicans are planning unusual procedural tricks to ensure their objections are heard; the GOP on Tuesday forced committee work in the Senate to essentially come to a halt.

But even if the GOP is successful in delaying action in the Senate and forcing changes to the bill, House Democratic leaders may bring the chamber back to session during the upcoming spring recess to pass the reconciliation bill one last time.

And that fact is not lost on some.

“Obviously, the damage has been done,” said New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, who is leading the fight over the reconciliation bill. “But we have not had an opportunity to address some of the substantive policy questions which are out there that should be discussed in an amendment-type atmosphere.”

Since they began the health care debate last year, Democrats had kept the reconciliation process — a filibuster-proof way to make changes in tax laws and entitlement programs — firmly on the table. Nearly every time the strategy came to the fore, Republicans likened the idea to the “nuclear option” that nearly shut down the Senate in 2005, when the GOP tried to end filibusters for George W. Bush’s judicial nominees.

Gregg said the nuclear option was being referred to in the context of moving the whole health care bill through reconciliation — rather than the smaller set of items now being considered.

“This bill was used to buy votes; it’s a much smaller bill,” Gregg said.

In fact, it was House Democrats who pushed for the reconciliation bill to clean up some of the more politically problematic provisions in the Senate bill, including closing the doughnut hole on Medicare prescription drug coverage, delaying an excise tax on high-end insurance plans and killing the so-called Cornhusker Kickback. The Senate bill also includes a sweeping rewrite of student loan laws that most Republicans strongly oppose.

Democrats, feeling confident, are making fun of Senate Republicans for actually holding up the bill that removes some of the most controversial items.

“I don’t understand what they’re doing, because they’re all going to be for supporting the Nebraska cornhusker provision and will be voting against all the things this bill cleans up,” Brown said.

There is one potential area that could blow up the debate. If Vice President Joe Biden uses his authority to overrule a decision by parliamentarian Frumin, it could cause chaos in the chamber because that is so rarely done.

“They would be very loath to do that because it would clearly be a political act,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). “And the Democrats have already said they’re going to abide by the parliamentarian, which means they must have some confidence that whatever they said is going to work out their way.”

Democrats downplay the likelihood of such a scenario, and Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), declined to comment on the possibility.

Republicans aren’t sparing Frumin, who is supposed to be an impartial referee on Senate procedure.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refused to say Tuesday whether he believes the parliamentarian has been a fair arbiter of the Senate rules.

“We’ll have views about that, I suppose, as we move along,” McConnell said Tuesday. “We’ll see what the parliamentarian rules and whether he becomes a player in this exercise or truly a referee, an umpire.”

The theatrics may go beyond rhetoric as well. Republicans could go to lengths to keep the Senate in session by trying to extend the freewheeling amendment process indefinitely — even though Democrats said they may push Frumin to rule such a tactic dilatory and prevent them from doing that.

“Realistically, I think the answer to that question is how long can senators stay awake continuously,” said Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). “We may see.”

But most Senate insiders don’t think the GOP will go to such lengths, as the real battle is now on the campaign trail.

“I’m not sure the public really differentiates between the [comprehensive] bill and the reconciliation bill,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “It’s all part of the machinations; it’s part of the process here.”

Sources: AP, Politico

No comments: