WASHINGTON -- "I hope people who are following this debate realize that we are having a debate about politics," said Sen. Phil Gramm, as he took the Senate floor last week amid consideration of prescription drug legislation. He called it "a debate about the next election" and "hardly a debate about Medicare." Concluding a memorable Senate career, the Texas Republican again had brought clarity to a seemingly incoherent situation.
While purportedly debating legislation that would add prescription drugs to Medicare benefits, the Democratic-controlled Senate was setting the 2002 campaign table. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's procedure was guaranteed to fail. Whether or not it proves a boon for Democrats in this year's mid-term elections, this failure typifies the Senate's continued decline under Daschle's leadership.
Daschle orchestrated a situation where 60 votes were needed in the closely divided 100-member Senate to pass prescription drugs -- a nearly impossible undertaking. "The Senate is too much for me at my age," 70-year-old freshman Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia told me. An independent Democrat who wants passage of a bill rather than creation of an issue, career politician Miller is baffled.
Democratic senators lately have been praising Robert Caro's "Master of the Senate," his brilliant appraisal of how Lyndon B. Johnson a half century ago rescued the Senate from mediocrity. Like Daschle, Johnson had a single-vote Democratic majority. Unlike Daschle, Johnson worked ceaselessly for bipartisan coalitions to pass legislation. Passage of the 1957 civil rights bill, the centerpiece of Caro's book and LBJ's Senate career, was the product of compromise and negotiation. As a reporter who covered the Johnson Senate, I can attest it bears little resemblance to the Daschle Senate.
Actually, there was virtual unanimity in the Senate that it is high time that prescription drugs, which now constitute far more common medical treatment for the elderly than surgery or hospitalization, be provided by Medicare. Senators disagreed on the size and means, the kind of problem Lyndon Johnson delighted in solving to the despair of left-wing demagogues.
But today's national Democratic strategists have advised party leaders not to compromise. With their polls giving the party a 24-point advantage over the Republicans on prescription drugs, they see a win-win situation by pressing the most comprehensive, most expensive bill. If it passed, the Democrats would get the credit. If it failed, the Republicans would get the blame. Daschle was uninterested in seeking consensus.
Accordingly, the majority leader did not want a bill drafted by the Finance Committee (further deteriorating the Senate's committee system). Democrat John Breaux of Louisiana would have joined the committee's Republicans and Independent Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont to support compromise legislation.
Nor did the party leadership trust Finance Chairman Max Baucus of Montana, who had collaborated with Republicans in passing President Bush's 2001 tax cut. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a first-termer from Michigan specializing in relating hard-luck stories of senior citizens, supplanted Baucus as lead Democrat on the issue.
Because no bill on the floor went through the Finance Committee, each was subjected to a point of order, which would require 60 votes to overturn. There was another reason for a point of order. Daschle did not push a new budget through the Senate this year, and the old budget limited 10-year spending for prescription drugs to $300 billion. Daschle did not want a bill that small.
Three bills failed to get 60 votes (though two received more than 50). As restless senators yearned to leave town, Daschle tried one last proposal. It was a badly drafted measure, as is generally true of proposals cobbled together on the floor. Democrat Sen. Tom Harkin, facing a tough re-election fight in Iowa, was not happy about leaving Washington last Friday without a bill and ended up voting against the last try. It collected only 49 votes (with 50 against).
The senators who were reading Caro's book knew this was no Johnsonian triumph. The political consultants still see a win-win format, where this failure of leadership will redound to Democratic advantage. But these were the same experts who in 1994, on the eve of the Republican tsunami, predicted Democrats would flourish because they refused to compromise on health care.