Congress In for a Blood Bath Over Healthcare, Debt Ceiling

The GOP’s plan to vote on repealing healthcare reform means bipartisanship is for the birds in 2011.

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On the first day of the new year, the Horned Frogs jumped over the Badgers in college football's glory, the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. My Wisconsinite family was there, seven strong in the stands, to witness the tragical triumph for Texas Christian University. How sweet a victory it would have been for those who had to fly back to the snow, broken-hearted. Justice was for the birds.

On the fifth day of January--tomorrow--the new Congress officially comes to town. The sedate Senate shall stay blue, everybody--the good news--but the House is radically Republican now, and so Rep. Nancy Pelosi will be speaker of the House no more. She'll hand off the gavel ceremoniously to Rep. John Boehner--a bit of walking, weeping bad news--but then relentless Sen. Mitch McConnell, Minority Leader, may prove more formidable as a partisan foe. Then poof! Vestiges of courtesy shall vanish, succeeded by open season on Barack Obama's presidency. As winter's wind shall tell, the fate of the nation cannot be far behind this spring. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the GOP.]

On the 12th day of 2011, the belligerent new crowd of House Republicans will take a repeal vote on Obama's signature and singular legislation--healthcare reform. Thirty million more Americans will be covered for health insurance under the new Affordable Care Act. In a few years, the reform law will improve the healthcare system by emphasizing primary patient care, among other good things. What a travesty for a bunch of hot-headed, hard-hearted freshmen to think they can cavalierly defy the most significant social progress Democratic lawmakers and a president have made in a generation. They won't turn it back--but it's quite a way to make your first mark with colleagues across the aisle in the People's House. Get ready, blood sports fans, for more passing the ball to Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who will give Sarah Palin a rush and run for her money as the party darling this year (call it woman's intuition).

Not so long ago, a little lip service was given to bipartisanship on Capitol Hill. It made a brief fourth-quarter comeback in the Senate in December, much like the Badgers' late touchdown rally, as the START treaty was ratified and the "don't ask, don't tell" policy was repealed (hurrah!). But depend upon it, sir: bipartisanship is also for the birds in the year ahead.

On a matter of some urgency, chatter in this town is centered on the drama of raising the debt ceiling come March or April--and which side holds the key to a political king's ransom. The government is prone to doing this to preserve our "full faith and credit" in the global economy--just a little habit we've kept up since the founding fathers. One favorite, Alexander Hamilton, most brilliant of Federalists and treasury secretaries, would need his smelling salts at the wild talk of defaulting worldwide on our debts. As for shutting down the government, it's a trick we've seen once, when a discontented new class of House Republicans led by Newt Gingrich dared to do the deed, much to their detriment. See, the world's superpower just doesn't do things like that, cowboys. [Take the poll: Should Congress Raise the Debt Ceiling?]

If brought back to life from an agonizing death in a duel in 1804, Hamilton might compare a government default, shutdown, or cutting budget spending in an austere time like this to a medical remedy popular in his day: leeches applied to patients to suck their lifeblood.

Last, the Senate may have a better cure for our country's shared political pain: filibuster reform is scheduled early on the year's agenda to treat what ails the body politic. Salvation lies in the Senate's sights if they approve a swifter, fairer way of doing the nation's business. As it's organized now, 60 votes are in theory necessary to even have a debate and a vote on a bill. In these divided times, that is often not possible, and thus important legislation (like healthcare reform) languishes too long. One aspect of a possible reform pending is to make senators who filibuster actually get out there on the floor and ramble the old-fashioned way, instead of a lazy, do-nothing signal behind the scenes. That would be more fun to watch for us up in the gallery and lend more light and clarity to the players and public opinion on any given issue: climatic, judicial, or military.

Oh, I know it could break the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd's heart. Another favorite, the snow-topped Byrd of West Virginia was the revered guardian of Senate rules and courtly traditions, but the times are crying out loud for a change since the summer day he died at 92. Yes, the wheel has turned and maybe even he would agree that in the bitter winter fray of 2011, the filibuster as we know it is for the birds.

  • Take the poll: Should Congress Raise the Debt Ceiling?
  • Follow the money in Congress.
  • Check out a roundup of this month's best political cartoons.