The Senate opened long-awaited debate on health care reform legislation Monday, but the real action may be happening behind the scenes and at the grass roots.
Republicans, backed by the health insurance lobby, are working to kill a public option and any substantive reform by dragging out debate, allowing time to wage a well-financed public relations fear campaign. They are also expected to introduce a torrent of toxic amendments.
In Monday's opening session, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced an amendment that would send the reform bill back to the Senate Finance Committee and instruct that committee to take out $491 billion worth of savings in the Medicare and Medicaid programs. He trumpeted the Republican claim that these savings would cut people's care. In fact, the savings would not affect the care people receive. They would come from reducing taxpayer giveaways to insurance companies through the private "Medicare Advantage" plans created by the Bush administration and Republicans when they controlled Congress.
And, Think Progress notes, McCain favored drastic Medicare cuts, which would have reduced care, just last fall, during his presidential campaign.
But his amendment Monday was one opening shot in the GOP stall and disinform campaign.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has submitted two amendments so far: one to require all members of Congress to enroll in the public option and one to require members to sign a form indicating they have read the bill.
A spokesman said Coburn "has hundreds of amendments" waiting in the wings.
Republicans could also demand that amendments be read aloud word for word, and a variety of other parliamentary tactics to prolong debate past Christmas. In response, to highlight Republicans' obstruction tactics, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., could decide to keep the Senate in session 24 hours a day.
Reid is reported to be working on a compromise version of the public option provision that would enable him to get 60 votes, the number needed to close debate and move to final passage of a bill.
He held a strategy session Monday with top administration officials including White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and health reform director Nancy-Ann DeParle. Also in the meeting, according to Politico, were top Senate Democrats, including Dick Durbin of Illinois and Chuck Schumer of New York, and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
Even after the Senate passes a bill, it will have to be combined with the version passed by the House, which includes a public option and pays for health care reform by taxes on the wealthy.
But the House version also includes the so-called Stupak amendment, which adds new restrictions on women's access to abortion care. Women would lose private coverage for abortion services and millions more would be prohibited from buying it even with their own money, Planned Parenthood says. The current Senate version does not include these restrictions.
Health reform advocates are urging the public to contact their senators and press for inclusion of a strong public option, protection of women's health care rights, and no taxes on workers' health benefits. On Dec. 2, women's rights advocates will rally on Capitol Hill demanding that the Senate ensure women's access to reproductive health care, including abortion care.