Democrats Say ‘Go’ – Republicans Say ‘Wait’

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While members expected the Senate Finance Committee to begin its Wednesday markup by returning to the contentious amendment related to a White House deal with pharmaceutical companies, Democrat Bill Nelson – who had introduced that amendment – was not present. (* In my original post, I mistakenly identified the senator as Ben Nelson. The post has been corrected.) So Baucus moved on to an amendment from Republican Jim Bunning, which turned out to be a catalyst for 2 hours of debate. The debate made clear both the partisan divide on the committee at this point and how important it is to key Republican Senator Olympia Snowe to know exactly how much the Finance Committee bill will cost.

Bunning’s amendment would have forced the committee to wait for its bill to be translated from “conceptual language” to “legislative language.” (The former is basic plain English that’s easily understandable; Finance Committee legislation is typically presented in this form. The latter is legalese that’s difficult for lay people to interpret, but is the language that actually becomes law.) Bunning’s amendment further called for the Congressional Budget Office to formally assess that legislative language and post it online for three days before a vote. In practice, this would delay the Finance Committee vote for two to three weeks.

As debate ensued, Republicans on the committee were lined up behind Bunning, while Democrats were opposed. Democrat John Kerry called the amendment, “fundamentally a delay tactic,” saying the legislative language is “arcane, legalistic.” He’s right – it’s nearly impossible for a non-lawyer or policy wonk to read legislative language from the Finance Committee and come away with any real understanding of what it means. (Democrat Kent Conrad later read a section of legislative language to demonstrate this. Republican Pat Roberts then verbally interpreted what Conrad had read to prove that it was understandable to some people, including the special interests and government agencies affected by it.)

Throughout the debate, some of the most consequential statements came from Snowe, who was visibly annoyed that Democrats were opposing Bunning’s amendment. (Snowe is likely the only hope Democrats have for getting bipartisan support for the bill they ultimately will vote on.) Unlike other Republicans who tried to paint Democrat opposition to Bunning as a lack of transparency – Snowe’s argument was based on the fact that the CBO said in an earlier letter it needed full legislative language to come up with a formal assessment of how much the committee’s bill would cost. “Words matter and so do the numbers…if full [legislative language] matters to the Congressional Budget Office, it should matter to us.” As Baucus argued that the delay forced by the Bunning amendment would take too long, Snowe got even more animated, waving her arms, banging a pointed finger on the table and raising her voice. “I don’t understand the resistance…This is about doing our job…What is the rush?…Is there something happening in two weeks that we cannot wait?…I want to do my job.”

(The deadline for Democrats to pass some health care legislation via reconciliation is mid-October, but Baucus is also under pressure from the Congressional leadership and White House to pass legislation quickly before public opposition grows further.)

In the end, Baucus introduced his own amendment that said the committee would wait to vote until the bill was ready in “conceptual language” with a “complete cost analysis” from CBO. Essentially, this means Baucus considers CBO’s assessment of the bill in plain English good enough. The vote on Bunning’s amendment was split directly along party lines, except for Democrat Blanche Lincoln, meaning it failed to pass. The Baucus amendment passed directly along party lines.

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