Setting the Record Straight

July 10, 2008

Our Medicare Missread

Kennedy’s Trip Unnecessary? No!

We won’t change this post beyond the headlines, so you can see how we blew it. Normally, congressional members of the party in the White House, usually support the president on a veto even if they voted for the original bill. The override votes in both houses were greater than the original votes, signalling that Bush should go home now to Crawford and leave us alone for the rest of his term.

          It seemed like a good idea at the time, when Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., interrupted his recovery and treatment for a probably fatal brain tumor to fly to Washington, D.C., to cast a deciding Medicare vote.
          In the long run, Kennedy and the Democrats are destined to lose on the issue, even though the vote result, 69-30 and quickly labeled “veto-proof,” makes it look like a winner for the opposing party. It looks like a winner, that is, if you don’t pay attention to how Congress works.
          The issue at stake was payment for physicians who treat Medicare patients, with the parties split on where to cut reimbursements. It is a classic Republican vs. Democrat policy disagreement, whether federal money should be filtered through private industry.
          As they have been doing for decades when they are in the minority, and especially as the current one-vote minority, Republicans threatened a filibuster against the bill. Filibusters are never actually held these days, but the mere threat of one is enough to block a bill from being brought up for a yes-or-not vote.
          To allow that up-or-down vote to take place, at least 60 senators must vote “aye.” Kennedy could not make it to Washington a few weeks ago, three weeks after his surgery, and the “cloture” vote taken then fell one short. To avoid a repeat of that situation, he made the trip and sure enough, Kennedy gave Democrats the 60th vote they needed, nine of the votes coming from Republican senators who oppose the Bush administration on the issue.
          Knowing the vote was enough to allow an up-or-down vote, nine Republicans switched their votes to aye, four of them facing re-election this year, thus the overwhelming 69-30 vote (John McCain was the lone absentee).
          That lopsided total led most news outlets to label the vote “veto-proof” because a move to override a veto requires two-thirds of those present and voting in each house, 67 in the Senate if all senators vote. But was the vote veto-proof?
         Veteran congressional watchers know members often vote differently when an issue is at stake than when a vote to side with the incumbent president of their party is at stake.
         Bush has vowed to veto the bill despite the vote. The nine who switched their vote presumably did so because it would look like a good vote to their constituents, even though they actually oppose the measure. Many of the nine Republicans who originally voted with the majority also may have felt themselves in the same position.
         The question now is whether Democrats can keep at least 16 of the 18 Republicans on their side during an override vote. Just three need to switch to support their president, and among the nine switchers, there mostly likely are more than three who will note vote against their own president on principle. And that does not include those whose arms about to be twisted by administration operatives.




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