Reporting from Washington — With the Senate's 60-39 vote to proceed to debate, after Thanksgiving, on a healthcare bill that the president is seeking by year's end, the debate of the 2010 midterm elections has been joined.
Democrats, in control of the White House and Congress, will present the congressional elections as a question of fulfilling an agenda of progress and change and keeping "the party of no," the intransigent GOP, in check.
Republicans will frame the midterms as a chance to reclaim at least part of Congress from a party trying to take over not just healthcare and imposing big government, big spending and taxation on every aspect of life -- "socialization," a leading Republican senator calls it.
If President Barack Obama is unable to sign a healthcare overhaul into law by the midterm vote, the GOP will be painting a picture of a president unable to work his will with his own party in control. If there is healthcare reform and more to present at the polls in 2010, the GOP will be cast by the people in power as an obstructionist, no-solution party.
Consider the words of the Florida Democratic Party, where one of the signal Senate campaigns is playing out: A 2010 contest featuring a popular Republican governor, Charlie Crist, whose own party is challenging him for siding with President Obama on the first of the White House's spending sprees, the economic stimulus. Democrats weighed in with this volley for interim Sen. George LeMieux, who was appointed to office by Crist and on Saturday was among the 39 Republicans voting against debating the healthcare bill.
"Instead of standing with his constituents, Sen. LeMieux has decided to stand with the Republican 'Party of NO,' which is offering no real alternatives and no real solutions," the Democrats wrote in an overnight e-mail to their forces in Florida. "Sen. LeMieux's unwillingness to even discuss the issue of health insurance in our country -- which has been on the minds of Floridians for many years -- shows that neither he nor Gov. Charlie Crist are interested in fixing our broken health insurance system and are only interested in seeing Democrats and President Obama fail."
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele also foreshadowed next year's election season in his response to Saturday's Senate vote, in which all the Republicans but the absent Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio voted against taking the healthcare bill to debate -- just as all the House's Republicans, except for Rep. Joseph Cao of New Orleans, voted against the House health bill.
"Make no mistake: this was not a free vote," Steele said. "A vote in favor of this procedural motion paves the way for the bill's final adoption, which would impose a government-run healthcare experiment on America that increases premiums, increases taxes, cuts Medicare and allows for taxpayer-funded abortions.
"President Obama, [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid and their liberal Senate allies will surely gloat and pat themselves on the back for winning tonight's vote in the dark of night during a rare Saturday session, while Americans were home with their families," Steele said. "But as they do, those moderate Democrats who voted for Harry Reid's bill will have to answer to their constituents."
That means in November 2010.
Reid's own words to the Senate had the sound of campaign oratory.
"It's clear by now that my Republican colleagues have no problem talking about healthcare in press conferences or television interviews or town halls," said Reid, D-Nev. "Yet now that we have actual legislation to debate, to amend and to build on -- now that we have words on paper and not just wild rumors -- will they refuse to debate?
"After all, if we are not debating -- if we refuse to let the Senate do its job -- what are we doing here? If senators refuse to debate about a profound crisis affecting every single citizen, the nation must ask: in whose interest do you vote?...
"My Republican friends, there is nothing to fear in debate," Reid said. "Be not afraid of debate. It is our job, and it is exactly what the legislative process is all about: discussing, amending, improving. We Democrats stand ready to do what needs to be done. We welcome debate. We encourage it."
Afterword, Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas pushed this e-mail out to his party's supporters overnight:
"No matter what the Democrats may try to tell you, this is a bill that will increase taxes, cut Medicare and use fancy accounting tricks to hide its true cost. The American people deserve better and Senate Republicans and our supporters continue to be the only thing standing between Democrats and the socialization of the American healthcare system.
"We cannot allow Washington bureaucrats to take control of our healthcare system."