WASHINGTON -- The Senate was up to its old tricks Monday evening. It prepared to pass, without debate and under a procedure requiring unanimous consent, a federal infusion of $9 billion into state Medicaid programs under the pretext of Katrina relief. The bill, drafted in secret under bipartisan auspices, was stopped cold when Republican Sen. John Ensign voiced his objection.
The bill's Democratic sponsors railed in outrage against Ensign, a 47-year-old first-termer from Las Vegas, Nev., who usually keeps a low profile. But he was not acting alone. Ensign belongs to, and, indeed, originated, a small group of Republicans who intend to stand guard on the Senate floor against such raids on the Treasury as Monday night's failure. The group includes Sen. John McCain, who long has tried to wean Republicans from ever greater federal spending but attracted little support from GOP colleagues until recently.
Fear has enveloped Republicans who see themselves handing the banner of fiscal integrity to the Democrats. The GOP is losing the rhetoric war, even though Democrats mostly push for higher domestic spending, because Republicans, while standing firm against tax hikes, have also declined to cut spending. Fearing the worst in the 2006 and 2008 elections, Republican senators who would not be expected to do so are looking to McCain to lead the party back to fiscal responsibility.
The "emergency" Medicaid bill is a classic case of how government grows and spending soars. Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln, concerned by health problems of evacuees in her state of Arkansas, introduced a bill increasing Medicaid funds to the states. The Senate Finance Committee's Republican chairman, Chuck Grassley, and its ranking Democrat, Max Baucus, drafted the scaled-down, $9 billion substitute and marked it for quick passage. No hearings, no debate, no trouble.
Grassley is an Iowa farmer considered a conservative when he came to the Senate 25 years ago. But like many lawmakers who may have stayed too long, Grassley plays the Washington game. "I remind colleagues," he said Monday night, "that we might end up actually adopting a proposal much more expensive than [this bill] if Sen. Lincoln offers her amendment." In other words, half of a bad proposal is better than the whole thing.