Democrats fend off GOP bid to block lame-duck legislating

Republicans fear big-ticket spending measures will be pushed through after the fall elections.

By Chris Silva — Posted Aug. 23, 2010

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House Democratic lawmakers recently deflected an attempt by the GOP to enact a measure aimed at preventing their leaders from pushing through big-ticket legislative items during an upcoming lame-duck congressional session.

Republicans are concerned that Democrats might be tempted to make a move on spending measures that would add to federal deficits during the short period after the Nov. 2 elections and before the next Congress is sworn in on Jan. 3, 2011. If the Democratic majority in the House is reduced in size or eliminated by voters, some GOP lawmakers fear Democrats might consider the lame-duck session the last chance to approve some of that federal spending.

Rep. Tom Price, MD (R, Ga.), introduced the privileged resolution Aug. 5. If approved, House members would have pledged not to hold a lame-duck session for the purposes of passing significant pieces of legislation. On a procedural challenge, House lawmakers voted down the resolution, 236-163.

Dr. Price said he offered the resolution because he feels Democrats are not listening to the ideas of Republicans, and that a postelection blitz of deficit spending measures could be a real possibility.

"The American people are fed up with the way Democrats are running the country," he said. "Despite having total control over Congress and the White House, Democrats have delayed important debates in the hopes of using a lame-duck session to avoid scrutiny of their job-killing plans."

Medicare doctor pay a factor

Dr. Price did not identify specific pieces of legislation he thought Democrats might try to push through in a lame-duck session. But unless it acts before the elections, Congress will be facing yet another major Medicare physician pay cut deadline at the end of November.

President Obama on June 25 signed a measure into law that temporarily reversed a 21% cut in Medicare pay through Nov. 30 and replaced it with a 2.2% raise. If lawmakers do not act by Dec. 1, a 23% reduction will go into effect, followed by an additional 6.5% cut on Jan. 1, 2011.

Democrats and Republicans generally have agreed that the cuts should not go through as required by statute, but they have strongly disagreed on how such reversals should be funded. Republicans have insisted that even temporary patches be fully paid for rather than contribute to the national debt. Three times this year alone, this dispute has been a major factor in lawmakers missing pay cut deadlines, allowing large cuts technically to take effect for a matter of days or weeks.

Democrats might be tempted to push through a more costly, longer-term Medicare pay solution during the lame-duck window. But not every lawmaker thinks they would be able to do that. Rep. Michael Burgess, MD (R, Texas), said he expected the passage of another temporary physician pay patch, giving the new Congress more time to consider a longer-term fix in 2011.

"I think the best scenario would be to pass another temporary fix before we go home in October for the elections, until the next Congress comes in," Dr. Burgess said.

Physician organizations, including the American Medical Association, are pushing for lawmakers to act on a more permanent pay solution before the elections instead of during the more unpredictable postelection session. Dr. Burgess said lawmakers probably won't have enough time during the lame-duck session to move anything more substantial than a short-term patch when it comes to Medicare pay.

Even if the House Democrats were able to approve a larger doctor pay bill in November or December, Democrats in the Senate would lack the 60 votes needed to overcome any unified GOP opposition no matter the outcome of the elections.

Eliminating a lame-duck deadline early would ensure that Congress does not allow a cut to go into effect again, Dr. Burgess said, as it technically had on three occasions this year. Two of those missed deadlines resulted in the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services directing contractors to process doctors' claims at the reduced rates, something the agency later corrected retroactively.

"I don't want to see us do that again," Dr. Burgess said. "I would like to see us do something responsibly in September or October before we go home for the elections."

Some policy experts agreed with Dr. Burgess that a longer-term solution on the Medicare doctor pay formula would be a tough item to move during a lame-duck session.

"The doc fix would definitely be an issue of concern," said Brian Darling, director of Senate relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C. "Anything like that where Congress might feel inclined to pass anything that goes against [pay-as-you-go] rules would be a valid concern on the behalf of members."

James Horney, director of federal fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C., agreed that it's unlikely such comprehensive legislation would be passed between the elections and the new year. But he questioned the merits of Dr. Price's failed resolution for seeking to stop lawmakers from even considering big legislative items.

"I'm not sure how you would really define it," Horney said. "If there are things that need to get done and they haven't before the election, I would think lawmakers would like to be in the position where some things could get done afterwards."

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