WASHINGTON - As Congress prepares to consider historic changes to the nation's health care system, Democratic leaders are balking at supporting a change in the rules that would let the public see the bills' texts 72 hours before a vote.
An unusual coalition of conservatives, watchdog groups and a handful of Democrats has joined the push by Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., to put the 72-hour measure into a binding rule for the House of Representatives. Similar efforts in the Senate haven't gained much momentum.
House Democratic leaders have pledged transparency before. In their 2006 campaign book, in the "integrity" section, they vowed that legislation would be available to the public 24 hours before "consideration" of final versions.
On some recent big bills, that hasn't happened, however. On Feb. 12, the 1,100-page, $787 billion economic-stimulus plan was made public at 10:45 p.m. EST and brought up in the House 13 hours later.
Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said that since Democrats took control of the House in 2007, several measures had been adopted to make the legislative process more transparent, such as posting amendments' texts online before consideration.
Pelosi also said last month that she was "absolutely" willing to put the health care bill online 72 hours in advance but that she wouldn't back legislation forcing her to do so.
"The vast majority of bills that have been considered by the House have been online for weeks and will continue to follow this process," Elshami said. Elshami didn't respond, however, when asked why Pelosi won't back Baird's bill.
Baird vowed to keep pushing.
"It's great what she said about health care, but it hasn't happened yet," he said. "The problem is that over the last decade or so, the more important the legislation, the less time we've had to read it."
Republicans and independent watchdog groups also have pounced.
"We think the public has a right and an obligation to look at these bills, and perhaps say to their congressman or senator, 'Fix this,' '' said Lisa Rosenberg, the government affairs consultant at the Sunlight Foundation, an independent group that works for openness in government.
Republicans were hardly champions of such transparency when they controlled Congress most of the time from 1995 to 2007. The 2,065-page 2003 Medicare prescription-drug benefit bill was made available to the public 22 hours before House debate began.
According to a study by Rafael DeGennaro, the president of Citizen Century Institute, an independent research group based in Branford, Conn., Republican House leaders acted on eight major budget bills from 1996 to 2004 without giving 72 hours' notice.
Two developments have spurred the movement to change the system: the House Democrats' 2006 platform, and the rise of the Internet, which gives the public unprecedented access to Congress' inner workings.
Seventy-two hours is considered adequate time for review because "a handful of hours is really too short, but we don't want a rule that forces one more slowdown," said Bartlett Cleland, the director of the Institute for Policy Innovation's Center for Technology Freedom, an advocacy group based in Dallas.
The House and Senate are expected to finish writing health care legislation shortly, perhaps by the end of this week, with floor debate to follow as soon as next week.
Baird and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., are trying to force their 72-hour resolution to change House rules to the floor with a "discharge petition," an unusual procedure that leaders dislike because it challenges their control of the process.
Currently, the petition has 182 signatures, almost all Republicans; 218 are needed to force a House vote.
In the Senate, where the issue rarely has come up, Republicans tried to get the Finance Committee to adopt the 72-hour rule as it deliberated over health care measures last month. Part of the problem: The committee technically wasn't writing a bill, but drafting "conceptual language."
Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., urged everyone not to worry. "It's all good faith," he said. "It's based on comity. We work together. We trust each other. And that's worked very, very well." The 72-hour effort failed by one vote in the Finance Committee.
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