With the approval rating of Congress sinking in the polls and public opinion of their health care plan going down along with it, Democrats may have done themselves one favor too many this week when they riddled the bill with special deals for individual lawmakers.
As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., struggled to pull together his 60 Democratic-controlled votes needed to pass the bill, certain holdout lawmakers were able to carve out extra money, benefits or exemptions that senators from other states didn't get.
Reid said the deal making is just part of how legislation gets done in the Senate.
“It's not different from other pieces of legislation,” Reid said. “We work compromises. That's what legislation is all about, the art of compromise.”
He added that for those senators who did not carve out something for themselves, “it doesn't speak well of them.”
Steve Ellis, who spends his days parsing out pork barrel projects from congressional spending bills, said Reid's response ignores public disgust over such back-room deals.
“Even if you say this is just the way it works, that doesn't mean the public likes it,” said Ellis, who is vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group. “It stinks. And the public recognizes that.”
The high cost of health legislation
Some of the special favors for powerful or hard-to-convince senators in the health bill expected to pass the Senate Thursday.
» Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. — Up to $300 million in additional federal money to pay for the state of Louisiana's share of the proposed expansion of Medicaid.
» Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. — A commitment that the federal government will permanently pay for Medicaid expansion in the Cornhusker State at a cost of about $100 million.
» Sens. Ben Nelson and Carl Levin, D-Mich. — A provision that shelters Mutual of Omaha in Nebraska and Blue Cross Blue Shield in Michigan from a proposed $10 billion annual fee on the health insurance industry.
» Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. — Dodd, facing a re-election battle with low poll numbers, inserted a $100 million grant tailored to a proposal for a new hospital at the University of Connecticut Health Center.
» Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. — A 2.2 percent increase in federal coverage of Medicaid expansion, worth about $600 million over a decade.
» Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. — A special provision that will exempt about 800,000 senior citizens in the Sunshine State from any of the proposed cuts to the Medicaid Advantage program.
» Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. — The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a chief architect of the health care bill inserted language in the bill to provide services and benefits, including Medicare, for a group of Montana miners exposed to asbestos.
Republicans trumpeted the deals as proof the bill was too unpopular to pass on its own, as evidenced by recent poll numbers showing shrinking public support.
“Payoffs, Kickbacks, Sweetheart Deals Abound in Sen. Reid's Government Takeover of Health Care,” read the headline on one Senate Republican press release.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called the deal making “sleazy.”
With the Internet and news saturated with accounts of the special deals secured by Nelson and others, it may be even harder than predicted for the Senate and House to return in January to pass a final bill, especially if they get an earful back home.
A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 32 percent of respondents believed the health care plan proposed by President Obama was a good idea, down from 39 percent in September. Congress fared even worse in the same poll, which found that 68 percent of those questioned disapprove of the job lawmakers are doing.
Democratic lawmakers nonetheless defended the bill on Tuesday and the special deals within it.
Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., all of whom had problems with the reform bill and were threatening to vote “no,” changed their minds around the time their states were given hundreds of billions of dollars in federal money to cover the reform bill's proposed expansion of Medicaid.
Landrieu said she was simply ensuring that her state received a “correction to a formula that was going to distort our share,” of Medicaid dollars.
“It was not a condition for my vote,” Landrieu said.
Nelson said he secured money for Medicaid because he believed the expansion is an unfunded mandate, which he opposes.
“Many of my colleagues are already talking about getting the same deal that we have,” Nelson said.