Massive bill steals show in health care debate

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Just before Sen. John Ensign took the Senate floor Friday evening to blast Democrats’ health care bill, a Senate staffer lugged a two-foot tall tower of papers to his desk to make sure it showed up in every camera angle C-Span might want to catch of the senator’s speech.

The real star of the health care debate this weekend has been the 2,074-page bill — a physical manifestation of the size and scope of what’s at stake as senators consider the overhaul of one-sixth of the nation’s economy.

“It’s a massive increase in government, as shown by this bill,” Mr. Ensign told a reporter off the floor later, spreading his arms wide as if to encompass the stack of papers that comes in at more than a foot tall and, according to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, weighs in at more than 20 pounds.

The bill contains the word “tax” 511 times and includes 18 tax hikes, according to Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative lobby group. It uses the word “require” more than 1,000 times, the word “shall” more than 3,500 times, and talks about studies required by the bill 150 times.

Democrats hope it also contains enough perks and goodies to win the 60 votes needed to get a bill passed on onto President Obama’s desk.

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It’s the largest of the health care bills yet, nearly two-and-a-half times as long as the 839-page bill a Senate committee passed earlier this year and 84 pages longer than the bill that passed the House earlier this month.

To emphasize the point, Republicans left a double-stack copy of the House and Senate bills together on the desk of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky throughout the debate.

Republicans have made sure the image is driven home every chance possible, rotating three other copies of the bill among their desks so a giant stack is never more than a desk or two away from any senator who wants to thump it, poke it or heft it for viewers to see.

Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, is in charge of the floor team and has made sure there are copies on the floor and in the Republican cloakroom so senators are armed for the debate.

The size of the bill has been a powerful symbol for months. During August’s contentious town halls, citizens and lawmakers alike carried copies of one version of the House bill around with them, and each side questioned whether the other had actually made it through the entire text.

The prop began to irk Democrats over the last two days.

“Nowhere on their desk do we see their bill. They have no answers, no solutions,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, while New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall accused Republicans of unfairly padding the prop.

“You only have print on one side, which isn’t even the way we print them up around here. I’ve had mine printed up on both sides, so I use both sides of the paper. So they’ve made an attempt here to make it look a lot higher than it is,” he said.

Mr. Udall said when the official print of the bill arrives, the type will be much smaller as well, and said at that point it will amount to “an average-size book.”

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