Republicans Use Objections to Stall Senate Hearings, Force Votes on Health Care 'Fixes'

Wednesday Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks surrounded by Democrats during a health care reform news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo)

Wednesday Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks surrounded by Democrats during a health care reform news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo)

Republicans used a procedural move Wednesday to halt hearings in the Senate and force Democrats to vote on a series of politically dicey matters relating to the health care "fixes" sent over by the House this week.

Senate Republicans said they would insist that no committee meet after 11 a.m., two hours after the Senate gaveled in on Wednesday. The objection was used as part of the "two-hour rule," a formality that requires unanimous consent for the Senate to meet two hours after the chamber has come into session.  

To start a hearing beyond that time now will require the approval of all 100 senators. 

A series of afternoon hearings were canceled as a result, with Senate Judiciary Committee Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., railing against Republicans for action that results in the delay of a hearing on a controversial judicial nominee, Goodwin Liu.

"For months, Senate Republicans have resisted efforts to enact important reforms to our health insurance system. But when the dust settles and the emotions are calmed, history will show that President Obama and this Congress responded to a pressing national issue, and proved once again that we can act with the purpose of advancing an important national interest," Leahy said.  

It was the second day hearings were held up by Republican objections. News reports noted that State Rep. Dan Gibbs was forced to return home Tuesday without testifying about the dangers of the bark beetle to the Centennial State's pine trees.

Jim Manley, spokesman to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, expressed frustration at the cancelations.

"For a second straight day, Republicans are using tricks to shut down several key Senate committees. So let me get this straight: in retaliation for our efforts to have an up-or-down vote to improve health care reform, Republicans are blocking an Armed Services committee hearing to discuss critical national security issues among other committee meetings? These political games and obstruction have to stop," Manley said.

Consent is normally a perfunctory action each day and nothing is ever heard about proceeding to committee business. But Republicans are using the objection as a statement against reconciliation.

Approval of the "fix-it" bill at the end of this week is virtually assured, since it's being debated under fast-track budget rules that allow passage with a simple majority instead of the 60 votes usually required for action in the 100-seat Senate. Democrats control 59 Senate seats.

That didn't stop Republicans from raising a series of amendments to derail the "sidecar" bill that aims to make changes demanded by House Democrats when they approved the Senate's health insurance overhaul on Sunday night. President Obama signed the Senate bill into law on Tuesday, declaring it "a new season in America" at a celebrative White House ceremony.

But Republicans are hoping to change any part of the fix-it bill to delay implementation and send it back to the House for additional votes.

Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn said he wants a vote on his amendment to prohibit coverage of Viagra for sex offenders. New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg wants savings from Medicare cuts plowed back into the health care program for seniors, instead of being used to expand coverage to the uninsured. Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi wants to gut penalties on employers whose workers wind up getting taxpayer subsidized coverage.

"What we're doing is offering amendments to take out the sweetheart deals, to take out the overcharging of students ont he student loans, to take out the taxes on people who make less than $250,000, which the president promised he wouldn't do," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., of the overhaul. "And then we'll get into the points of order and there may be some constitutional issues raised during that period of time."

Democrats are vowing to bat down the Republican amendments one-by-one.

Although the battle may soon be over in Congress, opponents already have launched a campaign from the outside, with 13 state attorneys general, all but one Republican, suing Tuesday to overturn the legislation on grounds it is unconstitutional.

And Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell served notice Tuesday of Republicans' continued campaign against the legislation ahead of the November congressional elections. "The slogan will be 'repeal and replace,' 'repeal and replace,"' McConnell said.

The president on Wednesday was to uphold his end of a deal reached with some moderate Democrats by signing an executive order affirming existing law against federal funding of abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the woman's life. The critical bloc of anti-abortion Democrats in the House had pledged to vote against the health care package unless given greater assurances that it would not amend current law.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.