The Senate has been debating health care reform for days now, the Christmas holiday break is drawing near, and parliamentary maneuvering is in full swing. Filibusters are being threatened, possible votes for cloture of debate are being tabulated, and all procedural options permitted by Senate rules seemingly are on the table. Today saw Senator Sanders of Vermont offer an amendment that would have resulted in a “single-payer” system and ask for unanimous consent to dispense with the reading of the amendment, but Senator Coburn objected. Accordingly, the clerk began to read the amendment — all 767 pages of it — and work on the bill ground to a halt for hours until Sanders pulled his amendment from consideration to stop the delay.
The reactions from both sides were predictable. Democrats accused Republicans of obstructionist delaying tactics. Republicans said they just wanted the American people to understand precisely what a “single-payer” system might do.
I think there is some political risk in this for Republicans. Public opinion polls on health care reform legislation seem to be heading in their direction, the Democrats have not yet struck a deal that can get the votes of the 60 Senators needed to prevent a filibuster, and parliamentary tactics might cause Democrats to unite in opposition. Americans think a lot of congressional activity is mired in silly rules and procedural shenanigans, and this latest move plays right into that perception. Still, the risk is probably minimal simply because so much political maneuvering has already been done by both sides. After all, if Senator Sanders knew that his “single-payer” amendment wasn’t going to pass — and he conceded this was the case — why was he wasting time by offering it in the first place? Moreover, much of the work on the health care reform legislation, like the “Medicare buy-in” proposal and other trial balloon compromises that have been floated since the legislation hit the Senate floor, has been done by secretive groups meeting behind closed doors and not through the open committee process. And, the details of many of the proposals aren’t being disclosed to the public or even other Senators, which may be the reason why Senator Coburn wanted to make a point by requiring that the Sanders amendment be read.
We seem to be approaching the end game on health care reform. A huge chunk of the economy, billions of dollars, and the political agendas and futures of every elected member of Congress hang in the balance. The stakes are such that parliamentary maneuvering to gain a tactical advantage should come as no surprise.