The health care reform debate over the last year has been more about politics than policy, so it's not surprising that Republicans used the latest round - the Senate vote on a proposed reconciliation bill - to tee up talking points instead of trying to improve the newly enacted reforms. Nevertheless, the episode was disappointing in its cynicism. Given an opportunity to shore up weaknesses in the new law, Republicans sought to render it unworkable or force Democrats to cast votes that could be caricatured on the campaign trail.
Admittedly, it's not clear that Democrats would have been open to amending the reconciliation bill with new ideas that promoted the goals of reform, even if they lowered taxpayers' costs. Their leaders kept the GOP at arm's length throughout the later stages of the process. The question is academic, though, because Republicans didn't offer any amendments along those lines.
Instead, they trotted out more than 40 proposals over the last two days, about half of them aimed at overturning or gutting the measure that President Obama signed into law Wednesday morning. These included amendments to repeal the long-term care provision, cancel the new federal panels that will review health care quality and efficiency, and protect the excessive subsidies paid for Medicare Advantage plans. Those proposals had no chance of passing, but at least they were substantive.
The rest were exercises in political posturing. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., offered amendments to protect the gun rights of mentally incapacitated or incompetent veterans and bar sex offenders from obtaining Viagra through federal health programs. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, proposed to let companies deny health benefits to new hires picked up from the unemployment lines. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., called for protecting jobs in the banking industry that would be lost by switching to a less costly federal student loan program. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., wanted to waive a tax on exotic fuels for mobile mammography vans. And Sen. Robert F. Bennett, R-Utah, proposed to block same-sex marriages in the District of Columbia until residents there could vote on the issue.
As disappointing as the debate was, it could have been worse. Republicans did not try to bury the bill under an avalanche of amendments. And Democrats did not try to use their majority to overrule the legitimate points of order the GOP raised against two minor student loan provisions. Those changes forced the bill back to the House, which passed the legislation Thursday night. All the same, the whole process seemed like speed dating - a poor substitute for real policymaking. That's because Republicans are more interested in a law they can campaign against than one we all have a stake in.