Hasty Medicare bill a bumbling gift to anti-reform Republicans

With Democratic leaders hoping to bring up legislation to fix, once and for all, the formula to pay doctors who treat Medicare patients, a great deal of attention is now being paid to the fact that Democrats failed to include a plan to pay for the bill’s $245 billion price tag. Newspaper editorials are attacking the plan as disingenuous; Republicans are blasting it as a bait-and-switch; and even some Democrats are vowing to withhold their support unless the bill is offset with spending cuts elsewhere.

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank this morning summarizes the GOP reaction:

Republicans, who had been losing traction in their effort to fight a health-care overhaul, could hardly believe the gift the majority had given them.

“I have never witnessed something more sinister!” an agitated Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.) declared on the Senate floor Tuesday morning. Citing a report that the “doc fix,” as the $250 billion measure is called, was created to buy the American Medical Association’s support for the main health-care bill, Corker accused the AMA of prostitution. “We all know that the selling of one’s body is one of the oldest professions in the world,” Corker said. “The AMA is engaged in basically selling the support of its body.”

It wasn’t supposed to happen that way. When Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) introduced the bill hastily last week, Democratic leaders hoped to pass the proposal quickly, so as to disassociate it from the larger heath reform proposal also moving through the chamber.

“We’re doing the doc fix first so as not to get it confused with health care reform,” Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) told reporters last week. “We’re going to try to pass it as an emergency-type of spending so that it doesn’t … connect to the health care reform bill and figure in as a cost of it.”

The reasons are clear: President Obama has vowed not to sign a health reform bill that adds to deficit spending, and divorcing Stabenow’s doc-fix bill from the larger effort means the White House can make good on that promise. It doesn’t hurt that the move would likely bring the American Medical Association — the nation’s largest physician organization — on board as an influential supporter of the later-to-be-tackled health reform bill.

Still, adding a quarter of a trillion dollars to the debt is no minor occasion. Why Democrats thought they could do it without attracting either media attention or Republican criticism remains a mystery.

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