- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 23, 2009

To understand just how bogged down the Senate Finance Committee is with its massive health care bill, one of the more than 500 amendments the 23 senators will consider is whether to award a tax exemption “for any state with a name that begins with the letter ‘U.’ ”

Seriously.

The amendment, one of 564, was introduced by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-The Only State With a Name That Begins With the Letter ‘U.’). It would exempt Utah from a tax on so-called “Cadillac” health plans, adding the state to 17 others set to be excluded under Chairman Max Baucus’ bill.

Calling the parameters set by Mr. Baucus “arbitrary and unfair,” the Republican says his amendment would add his state to the exemption list in a “no less arbitrary way.”

It only gets worse from there.

The committee on Tuesday met for the first time since the chairman put forward his bill, and from the start, it was clear that Republicans and Democrats were unlikely to see eye to eye.

For starters, fewer than half of the committee members were in their chairs when the gavel fell. Throughout the morning session of opening statements, senators came and went frequently. (After delivering his opening statement, Mr. Baucus disappeared, as the ranking member, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, read his into the record).

One senator, Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Democrat, dropped in just in time to deliver her statement. She left a short time later, and was last spotted in the hallway chatting with representatives from Estee Lauder (who were perhaps wooing her to wear the firm’s cosmetics, at least for big games like Tuesday’s).

In a truly bipartisan spirit, both parties hate the committee’s bill. Liberals don’t like that the plan omits a public option; conservatives say the bill amounts to a government takeover of health care.

Months of negotiations between three Republicans and three Democrats on the committee - the sextet met more than 60 times - delivered a compromise bill that even they didn’t like. On top of that, Democrats added 267 amendments and Republicans offered 292, promising days of debate just to wade through them all.

Some amendments are simply about syntax: Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Arkansas Democrat, wants “flexibility in the manner in which beds are counted.” Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, wants to “strike the word ‘fee’ everywhere it appears in the bill and replace it with the word ‘tax.’ ”

Some are blunt: Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, asks for an amendment “prohibiting a Federal Rationing Board.” Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, wants “to prevent health care reform from being paid for on the backs of our seniors.”

Others make no sense at all: Mr. Ensign’s C12 amendment is described simply as “Skin in the Game.”

Some are targeted to a senator’s home state: Mrs. Stabenow wants to “ensure patient access in Michigan’s rural communities” and reclassify “certain hospitals” in her home state.

Others cross cultural lines: Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and famed windsurfer, wants to make sure there is “community-based outreach for fishermen, farmers and ranchers.”

Some have nothing to do with health care reform: One Republican calls for preventing ACORN from receiving any federal funds under the bill. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, calls for the repeal of the Federal Deficit Act. A box on the side of the amendment’s description says simply: “This amendment should save money.” And Mr. Grassley offers helpfully: “Reduce federal spending.”

Others are just plain common sense. Mr. Hatch calls for “automatic enrollment of members of Congress voting for the federal government-funded health care cooperative.” Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, offers not one but two amendments “encouraging personal responsibility for all Americans.”

During Tuesday’s hearing, the first day senators began marking up the bill, all praised Mr. Baucus’ efforts to pull together widely divergent views. Still, the two sides remained far apart: Mr. Grassley said committee Democrats “were really never going to give us time to get it right,” while Mr. Kerry said emphatically: “Now is not the time to dither and dicker.”

Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Delaware Democrat, turned to a British wartime prime minister for inspiration.

“I like to paraphrase [Winston] Churchill, who used to say, this is not the end, this is not the beginning of the end, this is the end of the beginning,” he said.

• Joseph Curl can be reached at JCurl@washingtontimes.com.

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