Friday, November 20, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Sen. Lincoln in spotlight

This is the day of reckoning for Sen. Blanche Lincoln, when she ever so briefly is the most important person in America.

If she votes with her party this evening, the United States Senate will most likely spend the next month debating, amending and finally passing a bill to expand the nation’s health-insurance system to nearly everyone but illegal aliens.

If she votes instead with the Republicans, who want there to be no serious health-care reform if the Democrats and President Obama are going to get the credit, the momentum will be halted and the issue will be thrown into an election year when nothing consequential will be done.

Unwittingly or not, Senator Lincoln got herself into this predicament, where all the forces on every side of this biblical campaign are focusing their artillery on her delicate form.

Although she has professed to be an ardent champion of reforming the health system, she has waffled each time that opponents raise an objection.

Today, the Republicans will raise parliamentary obstacles to the Senate’s taking up health reform, and it will take a supermajority of 60 votes to override them and begin the long, arduous job of fashioning a bill that can win a majority of the votes.

But the Republican leadership, along with the insurance industry and its corporate allies, say that the Senate must not take up the legislation at all because the process will end some day with a bill that they will not like.

So they will invoke a quaint old Senate rule that allows them to block consideration of the bill forever with a filibuster.

Except for Senator Lincoln and perhaps Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, all 58 Democrats and the two independents are expected to vote to thwart the filibuster and begin work on the bill, although a few might in the end vote against the bill if it is not shaped to meet their objections.

Opponents have spent a small fortune in the Arkansas media markets to persuade Lincoln that she should vote against cloture and block consideration of a health bill or else face dire political consequences.

The editorial page of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette has been their herald, warning its readers Wednesday that a Lincoln vote to prevent a filibuster would be a sneaky way of foisting a terrible health-care law on the people of her state. Filibustering health reform to death is a good thing, the paper says.

For the eight years of Republican Washington, the Democrat-Gazette thought filibusters were terrible because they were sometimes threatened by Democrats.

The editor regularly resurrected the words of statesmen who said filibusters should never be used to prevent majority rule but only to slow a hasty vote. But now it praises a parliamentary maneuver that proposes not to lengthen debate but to prevent any debate.

Whatever her view of and her vote on the legislation that finally emerges in the next month or so, Senator Lincoln owes it to her constituents and to the country to let representative democracy work.

Rarely in all our history has a filibuster been employed to prevent the passage of legislation supported by a majority of the members of Congress and the American people.

Four years ago, in one of many editorials against real or threatened Democratic filibusters, the Democrat-Gazette opined that “the purpose of extended debate in the U. S. Senate should be to reach a reasoned decision after proper deliberation” but that filibusters were going to be used instead to prevent a decision from being reached at all. That was bad then; apparently it is good now.

It’s even more striking that the Democrat-Gazette’s editorial page promotes leaving cost controls out of health care without noting that expensive employee-benefits coverage, along with declining newspaper profits, contributed to layoffs of dozens of its newsroom staff.

Two Senate committees and three House committees have worked on health legislation for nearly a year. No legislative issue in the past 40 years has been debated so heatedly and so extensively.

All the competing proposals have been analyzed, argued, amended and finally audited by government and private agencies for their fiscal and human impacts.

The majority leader has meshed the two Senate committee bills, one of which Lincoln worked on and embraced, and he now proposes that the full Senate — all 100 of its members — begin work on a bill.

If Senator Lincoln joins today with a sizable majority of the Senate to invoke cloture, many battles and torrents of debate still lie ahead followed by weeks of conference deliberations with the House of Representatives and then a final debate and voting in both houses.. A legislator voting to legislate. Imagine that.

Those like the Democrat-Gazette who say that Senator Lincoln betrays her state if she doesn’t stand firmly with the minority are wrong. She will be voting to address, by her own account, the most pressing problem in America. It will be a vote for civility and, yes, for democracy.