A fragile gentleman’s agreement between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is breaking down, and now, three days into the health care debate, having held not a single vote on a single amendment, Democrats are saying enough is enough. And if they have to stay in session through Christmas to pass the bill, that’s what they’ll do.
After an impromptu caucus meeting on health care, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) told reporters, “the Republican leadership is stalling us and we have decided that we are going right through Christmas.” If it comes to that. “We go through as long as it takes, including Christmas day, if it takes it to pass it.”
In response to a question from TPMDC, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin told reporters, “unless the Republican leadership comes forward with a reasonable approach to these amendments, I think our patience is wearing thin.”
“We’re just not going to sit here forever and watch this bill go down,” he said.
“There was a lot of talk about, if we have to be here Christmas, we’ll be here Christmas,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA)Some background is appropriate here.
Going into this week, Reid, and McConnell had agreed to proceed slowly by trading off amendments, first one for the Democrats, then one for the Republicans.
Last night, after a long, full day of debate on these first amendments–including a motion offered by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) intended to kill the reform bill–Reid said, let’s hold a vote tomorrow afternoon, just on these amendments.
McConnell said no.
“I have to object,” said the Kentucky Republican. “We have a number of speakers who are interested in speaking on the Medicare issue and the McCain amendment, so I will not be able to lock in the McCain amendment, or the side by side.”
Soon thereafter the session adjourned–the Republicans put off their arguments for the night.
“We are now in the third day of debate with no indication from Senate Republicans when we will be voting – even on their own amendments,” reads a statement from Reid spokesman Jim Manley. “They have no plan to combat skyrocketing health care costs. They have no plan to stop insurance company abuses. And it shows at they continue to deny and delay any progress.”
Currently, Reid and the Democrats are considering their options for moving the debate forward, and actually holding votes. The main possibility being considered is that Reid could move to table irrelevant Republican amendments.
“If we’re not allowed to move we’re going to have to start tabling amendments,” Harkin said.
That could set off a dangerous dynamic, wherein Republicans table Democratic amendments, too, including some amendments (on issues like abortion and the public option) that are key to the rounding up the 60 votes Democrats need to overcome a filibuster and pass the bill.
“Fine, let’s start tabling everything then,” Harkin said. “I happen to like the bill the way it is.”
Without a prefigured agreement, amendments that aren’t tabled can be filibustered, which can slow the debate down by days at a time.
Reid has other options at his disposal–he can file cloture on the bill itself, or “fill the amendment tree”–if the status quo breaks down entirely, but these prerogatives are typically saved, to be used as a last resort.
It’s worth keeping in mind that he and the rest of Democratic leadership were counting on this sort of obstruction, and, indeed see value in allowing it to play out for some time on the floor.
“There’s a strategic and a message value to letting this play out on the floor for the American people to see,” a senior Democratic aide told me way back in September. “Especially if this plays out on the floor and Republicans try to kill the bill.”
Today, a different aide said, “we’re willing to give them a small window of time to give their best faith effort toward this gentleman’s agreement. But if we see that we’re at a complete stalemate over the next few days I think we’ll see things change rapidly.”
Not all Democrats are pleased with that–particularly Democrats who aren’t satisfied with the legislation as it stands.
“[Tabling] is obviously one of the methods of dealing with amendments that aren’t necessarily acceptable,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE). “I haven’t concluded that Republicans have tried to hold [the bill] up necessarily. I assume that they’re negotiating in good faith to get a way forward for amendments on both sides.”