The Senate, Not Much Interested in Health Care, but Very Interested in 'Interests'
Sweeteners for the South By Dana Milbank Sunday, November 22, 2009 Staffers on Capitol Hill were calling it the Louisiana Purchase. On the eve of Saturday's showdown in the Senate over health-care reform, Democratic leaders still hadn't secured the support of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), one of the 60 votes needed to keep the legislation alive. The wavering lawmaker was offered a sweetener: at least $100 million in extra federal money for her home state. And so it came to pass that Landrieu walked onto the Senate floor midafternoon Saturday to announce her aye vote -- and to trumpet the financial "fix" she had arranged for Louisiana. "I am not going to be defensive," she declared. "And it's not a $100 million fix. It's a $300 million fix." It was an awkward moment (not least because her figure is 20 times the original Louisiana Purchase price). But it was fairly representative of a Senate debate that seems to be scripted in the Southern Gothic style. The plot was gripping -- the bill survived Saturday's procedural test without a single vote to spare -- and it brought out the rank partisanship, the self-absorption and all the other pathologies of modern politics. If that wasn't enough of a Tennessee Williams story line, the debate even had, playing the lead role, a Southerner named Blanche with a flair for the dramatic. After Landrieu threw in her support (she asserted that the extra Medicaid funds were "not the reason" for her vote), the lone holdout in the 60-member Democratic caucus was Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. Like other Democratic moderates who knew a single vote could kill the bill, she took a streetcar named Opportunism, transferred to one called Wavering and made off with concessions of her own. . . . Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) won a promise from Reid to support his plan to expand eligibility for health insurance. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) got Reid to jettison a provision stripping health insurers of their antitrust exemption.
________________________________ Well, let's not be too hard on the South. A close scrutiny of what's in that 2,000 pages of pork, that represents itself as legislation, would shame a cat in the alley.
It's the job of representatives (either House or Senate) to get stuff for the folks back home . . . always has been, but it was once a bit more straightforward. Write a bill for this library or road improvement and get support by voting for some other school district or harbor dredging. Mary and Blanche are small potatoes compared to Ben Nelson, who's been paid off by the health insurers to retain their special antitrust exemption. Why do they rate a permission to treat American health care like an oil cartel? The answer, of course, is that they don't. But they bought and paid for it some years ago and Nelson means to assure that license to steal remains bought (by special interests) and paid for (by taxpayers). Nelson legally pocketed nearly $14 million in the past ten years. That's legal, rather than something you go to jail for as a dereliction of the public trust, only because Congress wrote the laws to make it legal. Meanwhile, the American public is distracted by the cost of health care legislation and not looking at where those costs come from. They come from 2,000 pages of small-print payoffs to your and my legislator. Take a stroll through Open Secrets and check out just how much your Senator or Representative is sticking in his pocket to stand between you and affordable health care. Then ask him why he's so dead-set against a public option.