The last time the US Senate held a vote on Christmas eve, it was 1895. In that one, lawmakers said it was OK for former Confederate army soldiers to serve in the military. The vote was hailed as a milestone in the slow national reconciliation following the Civil War.
No one was talking about national reconciliation following last week’s Christmas Eve Senate vote on health care reform. A bill was passed with unanimous support by Democrats, against the wishes of 40 resolute, disdainful Republicans.
The vote—and the long, vitriolic “debate” that preceded it—obliterated any remaining vestiges of collegiality and bipartisanship in the chamber…not to mention turning off those who see the issue to be complex and worthy of careful thought.
After struggling for decades to implement modest, incremental improvements to the nation’s fractured health insurance system, the Dems decided this was their best chance to do it up right. They weren’t going blow it, no matter what. So they cobbled together 60 votes–securing the last one in a particularly tawdry cash deal with a Senator from Nebraska–and then hunkered down.
There were 3 votes last week. Each one went down exactly the same way. 100 elected officials had their heels dug in for a week on the biggest piece of social legislation since John Travolta’s bell bottoms were banned in Boston.
Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, a moderate who has crossed the aisle many times in the past on health care and other issues, told the New York Times she was “extremely disappointed” with the process.
Once Democrats closed ranks, she said, “there was zero opportunity to amend the bill or modify it. Democrats had no incentive to reach across the aisle.”
And when the deed was done, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid actually chastised the GOP for deciding “to stand on the sidelines rather than participate in great and greatly needed social change.” This comment, in this particular context, is the moral equivalent of an end-zone celebration worthy of 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Whatever, the spectacle represented a new nadir in the nation’s 3-decade spiral towards an utterly polarized political system. Before last week in fact, there had never been a completely partisan vote on a social issue of such magnitude, or on major legislation of any sort, according to several Congressional historians.
The health reform bill, should it become law, would be social policy change comparable in scope to the formation of Social Security in 1935 and Medicare in 1965. Those landmark bills had substantial bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress. In the case of Medicare for example, the Senate vote of 68 to 21 featured 13 Republicans and 55 Democrats in favor, and 7 Democrats and 14 Republicans in opposition.
Even the 2003 expansion of Medicare to include a prescription drug benefit was passed with modest Democratic support.
And there is little chance the partisan divide will end any time soon. The battle will continue right through the 2010 and even 2012 election cycles, as Democrats try to rally support for the bill and Republicans look for every possible chance to say “we told you so.”
Reid, for example, has begun describing the fiasco as a battle of good vs. evil, with private insurers cast as the bad guys. “I don’t see this as 60 Democrats versus 40 Republicans,” Reid said. “I see it as 60 leaders who stood up to insurance companies and stood up for working families all across America.”
Reid’s colleagues were quick to pile on. Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown said the privates were “just one step ahead of the sheriff,” and California Senator Dianne Feinstein said the industry “lacks a moral compass.”
That’ll cost ya’ another 15 yards, fellas.
Anyone care to bet how the vote will go down on financial regulation, climate change and immigration?
Glenn Laffel is the Senior Vice President of Clinical Affairs at Practice Fusion.