Congress' 'Ping-Pong' Partisanship

The New Republic is reporting (and Talking Points Memo is confirming) that Democrats will likely skip conference committee, opting instead to resolve the differences between the Senate and House versions via "ping-pong," i.e. the two chambers sending the bill back and forth until they get a version they agree on. Going to committee is a more formal and laborious process, with at least three procedural steps just to get to conference and, as one report puts it, giving senators the opportunity for “one or several filibusters that can delay or even stall further action on a bill that a majority of the Senate wishes to send to conference.”

“Ping-pong," despite the silly name, is more straightforward: House takes the Senate bill, amends it, sends it back to Senate for a stamp of approval and it’s on Obama’s desk. And, as one particularly blunt Democratic aide put it to TPM, going the ping-pong route “cuts out the Republicans.” There is less room for debate, filibuster or really any opposition input as the congressional leadership is largely in control of the process.

That the final stages of health-care reform would play out in a markedly partisan fashion should not come as much of a surprise, given the past month of vicious Senate debate. We’re talking about a deliberations where one senator refused his colleague an extra moment to finish his sentence and another urged the American people to pray that someone could not make the final vote. “Compromise is often painful, but the push to get a bill out of Senate verged on the squalid,” Evan Thomas and Stuart Taylor, Jr. write in this week’s NEWSWEEK. While partisanship has always existed to some degree, it has become particularly pronounced in the 111th session, creating a very different atmosphere for the passage of landmark legislation. More from Thomas and Taylor:

Fierce partisanship is hardly new, unexpected, or, for that matter, unwelcome on Capitol Hill, and at earlier times in our history elected representatives have, in the heat of debate, attacked each other with their fists. But as the rancorous and seemingly endless health-care debate dragged on, Congress appeared ever-more polarized. Lawmakers fought bitterly over whether to fund abortions—a question that inspired passion, but was only marginally relevant to overall health-care reform—and they drew lines in the sand that seemed baffling to many Americans, at least those who aren't glued to the perpetual shouting matches on Fox or MSNBC....

Compare that to the votes on health-care reform, where just one Republican, Ahn Cao of Louisiana, voted in favor of the bill.

The Democratic leadership has two options: they can get bogged down, yet again, in battle with Republicans. Or, as Ezra Klein termed it today, they could take the "scenic route": less debate, more consensus, faster turnaround. This, after such a lengthy debate, is most definitely an alluring option. But it comes at a cost: Democrats would give up a chance to least slightly heal some of the wounds of a very bitter debate, allow health-care opponents to be heard one more time, perhaps offer a smart suggestion or two. This applies both to Republicans as well as liberal legislators, who would be also left with nowhere to take their demands.

The Democrats have already overcome the big hurdles to passing health-care reform. They shored up their 60 senators, made the necessary concessions to get Senators Nelson and Lieberman on board. Whether by conference or by ping-pong, this legislation will pass. Which leaves me with this question: in the grander scheme of things, what's the point of shutting out Republicans to wrap up the debate a week or two earlier? We are, after all, talking about legislation that by and large does not take effect until 2014. A few weeks of debate in 2010 does not change that. “This body prides itself on being the world’s greatest deliberative body,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, Democrat of Pennsylvania, as the Senate debate was drawing to a close. “That designation has been destroyed with what has occurred here in the past few days.” It will only be further destroyed in the next few weeks, if Democrats decide to go it alone in the debate’s final stage.

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