Critical Condition

Turbulence Ahead

Senate Democrats found themselves on the defensive in the debate Saturday over bringing Majority Leader Harry Reid’s health-reform bill up for consideration by the full Senate. While Democrats prevailed by winning the 60 votes to move the measure forward, Saturday’s speeches foreshadow the problems ahead.

Republican senators repeatedly cited a weekend column by Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter David Broder, who has been “writing for months that the acid test for this effort lies less in the publicized fight over the public option or the issue of abortion coverage than in the plausibility of its claim to be fiscally responsible. This is obviously turning out to be the case,” he wrote.

Broder said he has concluded that “these bills, as they stand, are budget-busters.”

And a new Quinnipiac poll released last week that Broder cited shows that only 19 percent of those surveyed believe President Obama will keep his promise that health reform won’t add to the federal deficit. A whopping 72 percent don’t believe the promise.

The cost of health care is indeed the top issue, and the American people understand that new taxes never will be enough to pay for Reid’s or Pelosi’s reform plans. The House demonstrated this once again last week when it punted on the “doc fix,” showing it does not have the political will to make the cuts to Medicare and Medicaid that would allegedly bring the bills’ costs under the magic $900 billion number.

Saturday’s Senate debate also was filled with multiple references to a Wall Street Journal commentary by the dean of the Harvard Medical School, Jeffrey S. Flier, who wrote last week that he gives the reform effort a “failing grade.” He said the bills before Congress contain “no provisions to substantively control the growth of costs or raise the quality of care. So the overall effort will fail to qualify as reform.”

Further, endorsements by the AARP and the American Medical Association have been largely discredited as reflecting more the narrow interest of those organizations than the will of their members.

The difficulty of achieving final passage of reform legislation in the Senate was reflected in the speeches by moderate Democrats whose votes will be required to pass the 60-vote test to close debate on the bill:

Sen. Ben Nelson (Nebraska): He said he supports some parts of the Reid bill and opposes others, which, he said, “I will work to fix.” But he concluded, “If that’s not possible, I will oppose the second cloture motion — needing 60 votes — to end debate, and oppose the final bill.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman (Connecticut): “If the bill remains where it is now, I will not be able to support a cloture motion before final passage.”

Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Arkansas): “I’ve already alerted the leader, and I’m promising my colleagues, that I’m prepared to vote against moving to the next stage of consideration as long as a government-run public option is included.”

All forms of parliamentary tricks are possible, and Chicago-style political persuasion certainly will come into play, but poll after poll show that the American people do not like this legislation and want Congress to put on the brakes and start over. With calls to some offices running 90 to 1 against the bill, one hopes senators are listening.

— Grace-Marie Turner is president of the Galen Institute.