WASHINGTON — For weeks, Democratic leaders gritted their teeth whenever Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell airily dismissed suggestions that Republicans would work to slow the health care debate.
The Democrats thought they knew better. Under McConnell's leadership during the 111th Congress, Republicans have attempted to filibuster — block legislation by defeating efforts to cut off debate — more than 30 times.
To Democrats, out-strategizing Kentucky's senior senator is serious business. McConnell ostensibly could derail President Barack Obama's top domestic policy priority.
After all, McConnell, a lawmaker whose skill as a parliamentary tactician has long earned him begrudging nods of respect from across the aisle, has a lot riding on the health care debate. As the titular head of a dwindled caucus, he has the difficult task of navigating his party through the Obama administration's historic health care overhaul while ensuring that the GOP isn't steamrolled in the process.
A clue to how McConnell intends to handle this balancing act came Wednesday, when New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg sent Republican colleagues a memo on parliamentary strategy they could use to offer amendments and extend debate. Democrats quickly labeled the letter an "obstructionist playbook" and pointed to the Kentucky lawmaker as the brainpower behind Republican stall tactics.
McConnell and Gregg waved off the criticism and feigned confusion about the Democrats' pique over the GOP's "innocuous" guidance to party members during a tongue-in-cheek exchange Thursday on the Senate floor.
"I think it's clearly not the case that the Republicans want to delay a process that we've only now gotten an opportunity to participate in, since this has been a strictly partisan adventure from the beginning," McConnell said, at one point stifling a chuckle. "But we'll have an opportunity over a number of weeks to offer amendments."
If McConnell's history of having filibustered hundreds of measures over the years and the GOP's voting pattern in the 111th Congress are any indications of what to expect during the health care debate, Kentucky's senior senator will use every weapon in his arsenal to draw out the process as long as possible.
This year, Republicans tried to block efforts to force a vote on a tobacco regulation bill that allows the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the cigarette industry, and on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which expanded workers rights to sue in cases of pay discrimination, among other pieces of legislation.
Three weeks before Christmas, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's office says there's little willingness on either side to negotiate agreements on health care, and the Nevada lawmaker would indicate only "soon" when he was asked when he might call for a final vote. The Senate took up the first four amendments Thursday on the more than 2,000-page bill, with numerous others to follow.
"Well, Senator McConnell's spokesman laid it out pretty well a couple of weeks ago when he spoke about simple extension of employment insurance," said Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley, in reference to an article last month in the National Journal that quoted an unnamed GOP aide. "He said we're at war and sometimes you have to take prisoners. It's one of the most disgraceful statements I've heard in a long time, and it aptly describes their approach to health care."
"It's a delicate line to walk where you're trying to rally all of your troops to kill the legislation," said Norm Ornstein, a veteran political analyst and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy-research center in Washington. "You're also tempted to use every parliamentary trick to kill it even as you try to amend it."
Already, the Senate rejected on a largely party-line vote Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain's amendment to recommit the health care measure to the Senate Finance Committee to remove more than $400 billion in Medicare cuts. The amendment would have hobbled the Democrats' plans to help pay for expanded coverage through those cuts.
One method McConnell could employ is to look at the kinds of amendments Democrats are going to offer, especially those that moderate Democrats draft, to see which measures Republicans could support, either because they're poison pills that could kill the legislation or because they're worth backing, Ornstein said. There's also the option of adding amendments on illegal immigration, abortion or guns, explosive issues that could attract moderate Democrats who are skittish about the health care overhaul.
Then there are all sorts of other possibilities, including reading amendments or even the whole bill word for word, a tactic McConnell employed during last year's debate over global warming legislation, when he brought the proceedings to a standstill after calling for all 492 pages of the bill to be read aloud.
However, such gambits could backfire, in terms of public perception and by galvanizing the Senate's Democratic leaders.
"I don't see the public responding to that (offering numerous amendments). You would have to have very good amendments," said Curtis Gans, the director of American University's Center for the Study of the American Electorate. "There will be a health care bill, and I don't think he's going to be able to block it."
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