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Uncivil debate

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These are not happy days in the United States Senate. On Monday, Harry Reid began the health-care debate by offering a couple of uncontroversial amendments. Among them was Blanche Lincoln's proposal to ensure that amendments to the bill were posted on the author's Web site so the public could see what the Congress was considering. Reid asked for unanimous consent to move to a vote.

Mike Enzi objected.

That may not seem like a big deal, but though the Senate needs 60 votes to vote on anything, it generally needs unanimity to doanything. And so the days have dragged on. John McCain offered a proposal to send health-care reform back to committee and strip out all reforms to Medicare. But that's not been voted on, either. Republicans are delaying votes on their own amendments, as surely as on Democratic amendments. Sen. Judd Gregg -- you may remember him as the guy Obama almost made secretary of Commerce -- is passing around this document outlining the many, many ways Republicans can delay not just the vote, but delay any vote at all.


gregg -

As Sam Stein notes, the memo is "a clear reflection of the extent to which Republicans are turning to the Byzantine processes of the Senate chamber as a means of holding up reform." He flags the "points of order" section, and is right to do so. It's a doozy.

"A Senator may make a point of order at any point he or she believes that a Senate procedure is being violated, with or without cause," Gregg writes. "After the presiding officer rules, any Senator who disagrees with such ruling may appeal the ruling of the chair -- that appeal is fully debatable. Some points of order, such as those raised on Constitutional grounds, are not ruled on by the presiding officer and the question is put to the Senate, then the point of order itself is fully debatable. The Senate may dispose of a point of order or an appeal by tabling it; however, delay is created by the two roll call votes in connection with each tabling motion (motion to table and motion to reconsider that vote)."

In other words, Gregg is explaining how to use a point of order, which is designed for cases when "a Senate procedure is being violated," in order to create delay by triggering "the two roll call votes in connection with each tabling motion." This is the same Judd Gregg who analogized using the reconciliation process for health-care reform to “running over the minority, putting them in cement and throwing them in the Chicago River," but when Bush wanted to use it, defended the procedure, saying: "Is there something wrong with majority rules? I don't think so."

There are a couple of points you could make on this, but the main one is that this is a completely insane way to run the government. As the Federalist Papers said, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." And if government was necessary, you could have the filibuster, and unanimous consent rules, and be assured that both would be used properly.

But men are not angels. Judd Gregg, among others, walks the earth. What's happening in the Senate right now is not that health care is losing a vote, or even that it's losing a call for cloture. It's that Republicans are attempting block debate and modification of the bill. They aren't obstructing the legislation so much as the legislative process. If the situation was reversed, it's very likely that Democrats would do the same.

Some of the resistance to structural reform comes from the tendency people have to treat the Senate as a mythic, hallowed institution. We can all picture the Capitol, gleaming white against the dark District sky. We can all remember learning about the Founders, and all the thought they put into the structure of our government. But the Senate is not hallowed at all to the people who serve in it. Gregg, the ranking member of the Budget Committee, and thus the guardian of the budget process, is perfectly willing to bend the rules to suit his ends, and then bend them the other way when his ends change. Men are not angels. You cannot ask them to deny their self-interest for long. This is why we have rules, and why our rules should be built to prevent people from pulling this kind of crap.

Photo credit: By Melina Mara/The Washington Post

By Ezra Klein  |  December 2, 2009; 5:07 PM ET
Categories:  Health Reform , Senate  
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Next: Susan Collins's health-care wish list

Comments

Hey, the Republicans play hardball. Too bad the Dems never, ever learn.

Posted by: AZProgressive | December 2, 2009 5:18 PM | Report abuse

This reform is a test of America's ability to reform itself. If it fails, America deserves to lose its hegemony. The senate bill is a good one. The only reason to oppose it is ideological stubbornness and short-term political gain that will prove to be devastating in the long term. The Republicans are sabotaging the country.

Posted by: GCReptile | December 2, 2009 5:21 PM | Report abuse

This is trench warfare but our leaders keep acting like they're making cavalry charges. The GOP will do whatever it takes to pass this bill. So far I have NOT seen any evidence that any powerful entity on the Democratic side will do whatever it takes to pass it -- not the White House, not the Senate leadership, not the political orgs. That's why legislating with 60 votes looks virtually the same as legislating with 51.

Posted by: NS12345 | December 2, 2009 5:26 PM | Report abuse

Sen. Gregg's memo is irresponsible.

It's rarely appropriate to remind people -- clients, fellow Senators, etc. -- of tactics which can be used to __knowingly__ evade the spirit of law (or rules, in this case). That it is happening on both sides of the isle, with increasing frequency, is troubling.

Posted by: rmgregory | December 2, 2009 5:34 PM | Report abuse

If the situation was reversed, it's very likely that Democrats would do the same.

Which is what happened with the FISA Reform. Wait, no... it was the Military Commissions Act. No, wait... it was Telecom Immunity. Er... I think it was the Patriot Act renewal. No, not that one...

Come on, Ezra. The Dems haven't done anything remotely like this in the past 20 years.

Time for reconcilliation. Line up the items that can't go through, and bundle them in a way that would embarass the GOP to vote agains them (such as Recision, Pre Condition, etc). The shove through the most progressive version that can go through reconcilliation.

The GOP is playing War. The ConservaDems are playing war. The White House and Leadership, along with the Progressives aren't.

John

Posted by: toshiaki | December 2, 2009 5:42 PM | Report abuse

What toshiaki said.

I know you write for the Post now, Ezra, but don't lie to people to create false equivalence. You're not Fred Hiatt.

Posted by: eelvisberg | December 2, 2009 5:56 PM | Report abuse

Seantors are, for the most part, lazy. The last thing they want to do is stay around over Christmas, so if Reid threatens to keep the senate running over what would otherwise be a recess, they'll give up on the delaying tactics. The Republicans are just assuming that Reid will break for recess when the clock runs out.

Posted by: constans | December 2, 2009 6:07 PM | Report abuse

The Senate should just be abolished by folding it's members into the House.

Posted by: MyrtleParker | December 2, 2009 6:08 PM | Report abuse

Gregg is retiring, so there is no incentive to make him cooperate. He's probably got a cushy lobbying job lined up that will be enhanced if he helps kill health care reform. He's bringing the GOP and the Senate into bad repute, and he's also a first-class jerk.

We need more counterattacks like Al Franken's bill against contractor rape that the GOP has to vote against to please their patrons and can then get trashed for doing so. Jesse Helms pioneeered this strategy, and it needs to be used against the GOP (along with keeping them in town) until they relent.

Posted by: Mimikatz | December 2, 2009 6:29 PM | Report abuse

The best part is that Ben Nelson quote DEFENDING the stall tactics (something to the effect of, "I wouldn't call it a bad faith effort by the GOP") because he's worried about having to support the bill in un-amended form.

Posted by: rusty_spatula | December 2, 2009 7:16 PM | Report abuse

I'm with toshiaki. The false equivalence was jarring.

Posted by: eRobin1 | December 2, 2009 7:40 PM | Report abuse

Thank goodness for the blogosphere and internet. Would this be explained, would this get out, in the days of just 30 minute or one hour network TV news broadcasts and one or two paper papers per city?

Not nearly as much, and not nearly as clearly, if at all. It would be a beautiful thing for the blogosphere and internet if this time this kind of travesty didn't work, if this time the Senate were really exposed for what it is today.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | December 2, 2009 8:53 PM | Report abuse

People are dying every day in the U.S. because they can't get access to timely affordable health care -- and the GOP is talking about procedural stunts like this?

Keep this is mind anytime these folks talk about the threats to this country caused by things like terrorism. The GOP's intransigence on health care policy over the past decade has killed exponentially more Americans than any terrorist group.

The words: "Traitorous hypocrites" jumps to mind. These politicians are literally playing games with American lives.

Posted by: JPRS | December 2, 2009 9:18 PM | Report abuse

Frankly, I'm glad someone is trying to stop this train-wreck of bigger government, taking more tax money to give stuff to people for free, and forcing people to pay for something they don't want or faice jail time with enforcement by the IRS.

Any rep or senator that votes for it will be actively opposed by me.

DONOTWANT OBAMACARE!

Healthcare is a right, sure. YOU have the right to all the healthcare YOU can pay for. You do NOT have the right to have everyone else pay for your healthcare.

Posted by: 6yv356yv356yv56y-private-nunya | December 3, 2009 1:35 AM | Report abuse

Dear Democrats: You won the elections, for the most part. Prove it. Get a backbone and beat the tar out of the Republicans who you say are so different than you. Why compromise with these losers? Some people will never learn. Act like you're in charge!

Posted by: citizen625 | December 3, 2009 5:43 AM | Report abuse

if republican's believe in their hearts (right, wrong or indifferent) that this legislation is the wrong way to go (which BTW the majority of Americans do believe now) then why shouldn't they try to stop it in any way they can? If Social Security privitization ever got off the ground don't you think the Democrats would have done the same thing? Didn't they block Andrew Biggs' confirmation thus ending the idea?

Posted by: visionbrkr | December 3, 2009 7:56 AM | Report abuse

If this keeps up and Reid & co don't use reconciliation or some kind of nuclear option, then they deserve to lose control next year.

Posted by: redwards95 | December 3, 2009 9:00 AM | Report abuse

The truth is that we have a dysfunctional government. The republicans' attempts to bring the process to a complete halt would seem more legitimate to me if they (1) recognized that the current health insurance system doesn't work, and (2) if they had something to offer besides tax breaks for rich people, their solution for everything.
As to the comment regarding what republicans believe in their hearts, I would be more receptive if they showed evidence of having hearts.

Posted by: rbe1 | December 3, 2009 9:05 AM | Report abuse

Democratic Senators from urban states should make clear to Gregg and the GOP--who are from predominately rural states--that the next farm welfare bill will be at risk if they play these games.

They can choose between continuing eternal welfare for Elmer Fudd and denying health care for America. Can't have both.

Posted by: Garak | December 3, 2009 9:33 AM | Report abuse

Gregg's behavior undermines the rightwing ideology that democracy is the best way to govern. We had an election in 2008 which expressed the will of the people. Now we have Gregg and others in the minority who are denying the will of the people. I hope Reid is up to the task. Stay in session through Christmas and New Years if necessary.

Posted by: cdierd1944 | December 3, 2009 9:39 AM | Report abuse

Gregg's behavior undermines the rightwing ideology that democracy is the best way to govern. We had an election in 2008 which expressed the will of the people. Now we have Gregg and others in the minority who are denying the will of the people. I hope Reid is up to the task. Stay in session through Christmas and New Years if necessary.

Posted by: cdierd1944 | December 3, 2009 9:41 AM | Report abuse

We the democrats are losers. Jeez. And big time false equivalence by Ezra here. +1million to toshiaki.

Posted by: paul37 | December 3, 2009 10:31 AM | Report abuse

I hope the Republicans shut down the Senate and stop this madness the corrupt democrats are pursuing.

health care needs more doctors and nurses, tort reform and lost of other changes that aren't anywhere in the democrat blivets.

Posted by: LarryG62 | December 3, 2009 10:55 AM | Report abuse

"Democratic Senators from urban states should make clear to Gregg and the GOP--who are from predominately rural states--that the next farm welfare bill will be at risk if they play these games."

Kudos to this -

Posted by: jvlem | December 3, 2009 12:32 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Klein, this article you have written only confirms to me that today's journalist are not really independent and unbiased as to what they write. As I read your comment, most people could only come to one conclusion and that is, that your true colors are very well worn, you are obviously for health care reform and all that he Democrats stand for, not once during your piece did you mention what the system in place now has its good merits and yes! we need to reform health care but we don't need to over hall the entire system which by-enlarge most people like, so, yes I want the Republicans to kill this monstrosity and make real reform without putting most of the people who like it out. So next time you write a piece please include all the view points and not just your own bias.

Posted by: jhartnack | December 3, 2009 12:45 PM | Report abuse

The Dems have proposed a bill that taxes for more years than it pays, distorting the cost. The bill assumes Congress will let stand cuts in Medicare (which they won't). So, the whole bill is dishonest. I hope the Republicans can delay it until Obama's mother calls him home for lunch.

Posted by: jack29 | December 3, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Best Congress money can buy.

Posted by: EnemyOfTheState | December 3, 2009 2:02 PM | Report abuse

This debate boils down to two things. One side wants to provide access to health care for 30 million uninsured as a first priority, and the other side wants to reduce costs for the 70% of Americans with health insurance as their first priority. Until the two sides figure out how to reconcile both items into a single bill with zero budget impact, the war of words and procedural gimmicks will continue.
No one wants to lose, and it seems that no one wants to win without the other side losing.

Posted by: The_Rat | December 3, 2009 2:23 PM | Report abuse

i am still trying to firgure out the gregg in the obama cabinet episode

gregg wanted to join the obama team

then he quit

now he is a "gop leader" opposing health reform

go figure!

Posted by: jamesoneill | December 3, 2009 2:50 PM | Report abuse

Why is Sen. Enzi opposed to posting the text of the amendments on the internet?!

Aren't they always screaming that people need the opportunity to read the bill?

Posted by: DROSE1 | December 3, 2009 3:20 PM | Report abuse

"The only reason to oppose it is ideological stubbornness and short-term political gain that will prove to be devastating in the long term." As some commenters have already pointed out, conservatives think this bill is awful for the country. A tremendously important step in the wrong direction. Of course those who think that way will try to stop it. Step out of the echo chamber for a minute. Lots of us don't agree with you.

Posted by: MikeR4 | December 3, 2009 3:26 PM | Report abuse

visionbrkr: "if republican's believe in their hearts (right, wrong or indifferent) that this legislation is the wrong way to go (which BTW the majority of Americans do believe now) then why shouldn't they try to stop it in any way they can?"

In a word: no. Because "process values" count. Abusing a system to get one's way is not the way to govern effectively, and effective governance is more important than any particular policy outcome. Endorsing such tactics means allowing them to be used by the other side when roles are reversed, which will make it that much harder for anyone to govern. And that's not a good outcome for anyone, especially the public.

If one side doesn't like the way legislation is coming out, they need to win more seats. That's how the system is supposed to work. If a majority of the public doesn't like the result, they can vote in different people to reverse it.

"If Social Security privitization ever got off the ground don't you think the Democrats would have done the same thing?"

Perhaps. But that wouldn't make it right, would it?

Posted by: dasimon | December 3, 2009 3:49 PM | Report abuse

MikeR4: "conservatives think this bill is awful for the country. A tremendously important step in the wrong direction. Of course those who think that way will try to stop it. Step out of the echo chamber for a minute. Lots of us don't agree with you."

Fine. Then the way to proceed is to win more seats and vote the bill down, not to stall and delay and subject everything to a 60-vote threshold--unless one is willing to endorse the same tactics when the roles are reversed.

Posted by: dasimon | December 3, 2009 3:52 PM | Report abuse

Hi Pot... This is Kettle... Did you know you were black?

Ezra Klein you should apply for a job with the White House... They are looking for more windbags with no actual talent to do anything other than complain about things..

Posted by: ProveMeWrong | December 3, 2009 4:16 PM | Report abuse

Don't care.

All that matters is getting rid of this awful, unfiscally sustainable, monstrous, gigantic government take over of health care.

More power to the Republicans.

Posted by: websterr1 | December 3, 2009 4:50 PM | Report abuse

Good for the GOP. The Senate was set up as a counterweight to the House and the mob-rule mentality that often arises there.

Posted by: loux24 | December 3, 2009 5:27 PM | Report abuse

CLOTURE... George Mitchell used this tool effectively during his time as Majority Leader to prevent just such tactics as Gregg is suggesting. 60 votes starts the clock running -- 30 hours of debate, then a vote on passage. Line up the votes, threathen cloture (which in practical terms limits each Senator to about 30 minutes of debate) and watch the GOP fall in line. Mitchell used it this way to gain agreements on a list of amendments allowed, negotiated debate time on each amendment, and put an end to the nonsense.

Posted by: wdrudman | December 3, 2009 6:22 PM | Report abuse

The GOP rules by thuggery and deceit and the majority Democrats barely rule due to their timid leader, Sen. Reid, who has delivered the cudgel to the GOP nasties who could care less about the country or people, despite the tiresome rants of fools like Boehner, McConnell, Cantor and Bachmann.
The GOP cares only about one thing: POWER. It will sacrifice any value, need, person, ideal, solution, or possibility to their only true value: POWER. The party of sore winners and sore losers.

The Democrats deserve to be dumped because they are weak, but the public fear of what the GOP will do next time in power keeps the Dems in place for now.
Where are the great Democratic leaders and lions of yesteryear?

Posted by: enough3 | December 3, 2009 7:14 PM | Report abuse

Toshiaki is right...errr...,correct.

And Judd Gregg is a Ph0kw@d.

Posted by: angelos_peter | December 3, 2009 10:26 PM | Report abuse

What's happening is that an expensive, contorted, and very controversial piece of legislation is being pushed hard onto a country that wants another free lunch. My taxes are going to go way up and my access to health care is going to continue to get worse as we are doing everything we can to stop reducing the cost of Medicare. It is completely insane that the Republicans are stopping the one reform that might actually make a shred of difference towards achieving their goals.

Posted by: staticvars | December 4, 2009 12:04 AM | Report abuse

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