President Obama’s speech to Democratic senators on Sunday unintentionally brought about what a top Democrat called the first bipartisan breakthrough in the health care debate as Democrats briefly handed over power of the Senate to Republicans.
It was merely a procedural agreement, but in a debate that’s been fiercely partisan, even the wonky victories are noteworthy.
As all Democrats met with Mr. Obama on Sunday afternoon, no one was available to preside over the Senate. The presiding officer, always a member of the majority, allows lawmakers to speak and ensures they follow the Senate’s procedural rules. When Democrats break for meetings, Republicans typically meet also, so the Senate goes into a short recess.
But because Republicans weren’t invited to the meeting, they wanted to continue speaking on the floor.
Giving the other party control of the floor rarely happens and, theoretically, it would give Republicans the power to throw out the health care bill, because there would have been no Democratic senator on the floor to object and stop the move.
“I hope that’s kind of a breakthrough here,” Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said on the Senate floor. “We’ve got to start trusting each other. It’s rarely done.”
But top Republicans and Democrats made a gentleman’s agreement ahead of time that there wouldn’t be any trickery. In a chamber that touts itself as collegial even when facing ideological divisions as deep as those affecting the health care debate, the odds of Republicans pulling any real shenanigans were slim.
“I have no concern about any untoward action taken,” Mr. Reid said on the Senate floor. “In a situation like that, I have no problem. I trust implicitly [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell, [and Minority Whip Jon] Kyl” of Arizona.
Mr. McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said Republicans wouldn’t have had anything constructive to do if the Senate weren’t open.
“So I suggested to the majority leader that we be allowed to speak, and we worked that out on our first bipartisan moment on this bill as he indicated,” he said.