- The Washington Times - Friday, March 19, 2010

On Thursday, Capitol Hill Democrats smiled. A lot. They walked with a spring in their step, some whistling a jaunty tune. Only Sen. John Kerry wore a long face, and yet even he was happy.

Meanwhile, Republicans loped along shadowy hidden hallways, their shoulders slumped. They huddled in conspiratorial conclaves, whispering, plotting. Some frowned; the rest scowled. They were angry little campers indeed.

“They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, a number is worth a lot, too. I love numbers,” gushed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who grinned ear to ear throughout a gloating afternoon press conference - even, oddly, as retired D.C. school teacher Stella Johnson told how she often must choose between buying food or buying medicine.

The number that swept the speaker off her feet was the latest “score” from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Health insurance reform legislation, the CBO said Thursday, will save $138 billion in the first 10 years and $1.2 trillion in the second 10 years.

Rep. James E. Clyburn, who stood behind Madam Speaker in a packed room near the House chamber, pronounced himself “giddy” over the numbers.

Republicans, meanwhile, were in disbelief, even denial. At first, some called the numbers nothing more than chimeras.

“The Congressional Budget Office has confirmed that there is currently no official cost estimate. Yet House Democrats are touting to the press - and spinning for partisan gain - numbers that have not been released,” said the House Budget Committee’s ranking Republican, Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin.

By noon, though, the mythical creatures that couldn’t possibly exist became as real as the Fibonacci numbers.

Republicans moved into stage two - anger.

“Democrats are crowing about a CBO score that really hides the big picture,” said Rep. Tom Price, who is a doctor. “The CBO numbers rest on a plan that taxes Americans for 10 years to cover a six-year spending binge of nearly $1 trillion. Such a maneuver masks the true cost of the first decade of full implementation. Meanwhile, Democrat leaders say this news makes them ‘giddy. Thats asinine.”

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, holding court in a basement Senate press room with only a dozen reporters or so on hand, said the the CBO’s numbers were based on “gimmicks.”

House Republicans, who met in closed-door meetings Thursday with their Senate counterparts, also dismissed the rosy numbers. House Republican Leader John A. Boehner summed up the consensus of the party: “They can tweak this thing, and still it’s a trillion dollars they’re going to spend.”

Well, $940 billion to be exact, according to the CBO. Or, maybe.

“Although CBO completed a preliminary review of legislative language prior to its release, the agency has not thoroughly examined the reconciliation proposal to verify its consistency with the previous draft,” CBO Director Doug Elmendorf said in a letter to Mrs. Pelosi.

The preliminary estimate is just the first 10 years. After that, the costs become nearly incalculable, so much so that the CBO offered a slew of caveats for the out years.

While Mrs. Pelosi said the CBO numbers “speak very eloquently,” she was less than fluent on just how the federal government will come up with $940 billion to pay for the massive program.

“Basically, most of the legislation, the biggest - one biggest covering of the cost comes from cutting waste, fraud and abuse, largely in Medicare. Over $500 billion comes from that,” the speaker said.

“The rest will be covered by a Medicare fee on unearned income, Medicare fee on unearned income. No - Medicare fee on earned - unearned income - whatever category that is,” she said.

Looking past funding mechanisms, the springy-step Democrats clearly have momentum. On Wednesday, a longtime liberal holdout broke for the Obama plan, and Thursday, more undecided Democrats - armed with the CBO’s rosy numbers - appeared ready to join their colleagues in support of the bill.

Having miraculously salvaged a vote that just a few weeks ago looked all but certain to be headed for a stinging defeat, President Obama canceled a planned trip abroad to be in town for the historic Sunday vote, likely following a leisurely round of golf.

Republicans - rejecting stage three, bargaining, and unlikely to ever make it to stage five, acceptance - vowed to go down fighting, even though Americans are probably ready for the yearlong debate to finally end, one way or the other.

“This bill’s bad for the patience of America,” said Rep./Dr. Price.

He may have said “patients,” but either way, come Sunday night, Congress will decide whether the federal government will have revamped one-sixth of the U.S. economy. And just eight months from now, Democrats will get a chance to see if Americans are just as “giddy” as they are with the decision.

Joseph Curl can be reached at Jcurl@washingtontimes.com.

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