Now that Republicans have already lost in the main event of the healthcare showdown, there’s not much appeal left in pretending to have some good-faith interest in hashing out the finer policy points. With a little bit of lifting left to do in the Senate, where the reconciliation package is now being considered, GOP senators can scarcely be bothered anymore to even play the part.
For this process to work the Senate has to pass, unmodified, the reconciliation bill approved by the House of Representatives. That means that Democrats can’t let anybody successfully attach an amendment to the bill. And here’s where Republicans have found their opening.
“Obviously, the damage has been done,” explains Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who’s the ranking member on the Budget Committee, and so is taking the lead on reconciliation. “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.”
Of course, an “amendment-type atmosphere” is just about the only “atmosphere” imaginable in which important healthcare issues have not been discussed. But Gregg isn’t really saying that the Senate needs more time to talk — they’ve had most of a year, and he knows it. What he’s really pointing out here is that, since he knows that Democrats have to oppose any amendment offered, the GOP is going to take this chance to extract a pound of flesh. He’s barely even bothering to cover it up in high-minded language.
At this point, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., kindly chimes in to illustrate what Gregg means by “discussing substantive policy questions in an amendment-type atmosphere.” We’re talking pedophile boners here. Coburn wants you to know that Democrats are for them, while Republicans maintain their steely opposition. The Oklahoma conservative is pushing an amendment to ban the coverage of Viagra for sex offenders. The proposal more or less reads, “Go ahead and vote against this, suckers.”
The major irony of all of this is that the reconciliation package actually fixes a lot of the items that Republicans have complained the loudest about during the healthcare negotiation process, like the so-called Cornhusker Kickback. Although to be fair, it also includes items the GOP has hated all along, such as student loan reform. Still, you get the sense from the guerrilla campaign going on in the upper chamber that it’s not really about the details.
Another possibility for the Senate minority to harass the bill on its way to passage is to go after Alan Frumin, the Senate parliamentarian. Frumin has rotated in and out of his job over the years, according to the whims of various Senate majority leaders. Most recently, he was appointed by then-Republican leader Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who had fired then-Parliamentarian Robert Dove in 2001 for his refusal to accommodate the GOP on a tax and budget matter. (Explained a staff assistant at the time, ”He has made it hard for the leadership to plot a strategy.”) Frumin has a certain amount of power to rule various measures in or out of order. So the crucial question would seem to be, will he be fair, as he’s supposed to be?
Pose that to a Republican senator right now, though, and the answer you get back is basically, “Fair means ruling for us.” As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., puts it, “We’ll have views about that, I suppose, as we move along. We’ll see what the parliamentarian rules and whether he becomes a player in this exercise or truly a referee, an umpire.”
Republicans may try to employ Senate procedures to slow the process down to a crawl. In that case, Democrats can turn to Frumin and ask him to rule GOP tactics as dilatory and out of order. But if Frumin won’t rule in favor of Democrats, Vice President Joe Biden has the power to intervene and overturn his rulings. But, says McConnell, “They would be very loath to do that because it would clearly be a political act.”
And a political act — well, Lord knows, the Senate just couldn’t handle such a thing.