The Health Care Bill No One Can See

There was an air of unreality in the United States Senate when I entered the Capitol building on Wednesday to record some  PJTV interviews. I sat down with five U.S. senators to discuss the imminent future of the long-embattled health care bill.

We are approaching the eleventh hour for Sen. Harry Reid’s (D-NV) slowly dying health care legislation, which he insists will be passed before Christmas. This is the same bill that was to be enacted last summer, then by August, then after Labor Day, and then before Thanksgiving.  Now it may be a Christmas present for the country.

The senators gave good information and offered sharp criticism of the bill.  What I had not expected was to discover that, well … there is no bill.

What about the 2,074-page document we've been reading about that purports to be health care legislation? Oh, they replied, that bill was pulled by Reid more than a week ago along with the public option, which is now dead.

So Mr. Reid has no bill for senators or the public to read. No one knows what will be in the new bill. And the new, concealed bill still has to be “scored” by the Congressional Budget Office before the Senate can debate it and before an increasingly skeptical public can make their opinion known.

But Senator Reid was vowing to keep the U.S. Senate hostage while he and his allies worked behind closed doors to craft a bill he will eventually unveil to the public. He says he will give the senators 72 hours to digest it before a vote. And this bill probably will exceed 2,074 pages.

So there is no plan -- neither a public option nor expanded Medicare. Then what is there?

It can be anything Mr. Reid and his pals want to dream up in their private, well-appointed Capitol Hill sitting rooms.

“The irony is,” said Senator Christopher “Kit” Bond (R-MO), “the president campaigned on total transparency. … What kind of bill is this?”

Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) told me that the request for lawmakers to vote on such a massive bill sight unseen was unprecedented. “I haven’t seen anything like this on a bill of this magnitude,” he mused.

“Unbelievable,” Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) said. It is the “most closed process” he has seen in his lifetime.

Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) was pretty fired up.  “I’ve been in elected office for 32 years. … Here we are with a 2,074-page bill and no one knows what’s in this bill.”

Senator Mike Johanns comes from Nebraska, the same state as wavering Democratic Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE).  “About a week from now,” Johanns laments, “we’ll cast a final vote redesigning everyone’s health care and today we don’t know what’s in a final bill.”

Johanns observed that even Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill), the second-ranking Democrat, confessed he was kind of clueless about what would be in the final bill.  Durbin admitted on the Senate floor on December 10: “Most of us know the fundamentals, but we don’t know the important details.”

Two-thirds of a year into our intense national debate, and it’s pretty amazing that there are no details for the public to read, analyze, or debate on health care reform.

So without a real bill, senators have been reduced to shadowboxing over the complex 2,000-page bill that doesn’t exist. The process is such a non-process that it has produced a surreal environment.

In “normal” times, pulling a bill would spell its doom. But we do not live in normal times. The president and his party are determined to pass “something,” regardless of whether it is good or bad.