Awaiting the mother of all shakedowns

Posted Nov. 27, 2009, at 9:27 p.m.

Syndicated columnist George Will may have struck a familiar chord with veteran gift givers and recipients when he wrote in Thursday’s newspaper about shoppers spending sums they can’t afford on unwanted Christmas gifts for unappreciative people.

In reviewing a new book about the “Scroogenomics” of Christmas, Will wrote that Christmas etiquette involves “composing one’s face to feign pleasure when unwrapping an unwelcome windfall — say a sweater of an appalling color and a style that went out of style in the 1940s — and murmuring ‘Oh, you shouldn’t have’ without revealing that you mean exactly that. Price of the sweater: $50. Value to recipient: $0. Actually, less than zero, considering the psychological cost of the forced smile … ”

The passage inexplicably brought to mind United States Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Congressional version of Santa Claus, who is reported to have handed out considerably more than garish sweaters as gifts to fellow politicians in hopes of securing their votes to keep alive the Senate version of health care reform. No Scrooge, this guy, when spending other people’s money.

I’m guessing that the formerly wavering Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana did not exclaim, “Oh, Harry. You shouldn’t have,” when the majority leader allegedly promised her state $300 million to fix its struggling Medicaid system in exchange for her vote to move the Senate bill to its floor-debate stage that begins next week. Nor was the smile on her kisser likely the least bit forced.

Capitol Hill staffers labeled the Landrieu payoff “the Louisiana Purchase,” and I’d say that pretty much sums it up, although President Thomas Jefferson and the nation’s taxpayers got a damn sight bigger bang for their buck in the original Louisiana Purchase of 1803 — the sweetest real estate deal of the millennium — when they paid France a mere $15 million for 828,800 square miles of real estate lying between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains.

The latter-day Louisiana largesse was not the only item on the Christmas shopping list of a Democratic leadership seeking all 60 votes of the Democratic Caucus (two independent senators caucus with the Senate’s 58 Democrats) necessary to keep the bill alive in the face of solid opposition from Republicans. Concessions were also made to reluctant Democratic senators from several other states.

As well, two weeks ago, on the day before the House of Representatives voted on its version of health care reform, Maine’s Second District Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud took a telephone call from the ultimate heavy hitter and arm twister-in-chief, President Barack Obama.

A Bangor Daily News story quoted Michaud as saying Obama “made it clear” that he was willing to work with Michaud and Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe to increase Medicare reimbursement rates to Maine doctors and hospitals. If the rates, second-lowest in the country, were improved to match Boston’s — a possibility reportedly discussed by Obama and Michaud — it would mean an additional $100 million per year in payments to Maine hospitals.

Michaud’s reservations about the House bill miraculously evaporated after his chat with Obama, and he voted with the Democratic majority, helping to narrowly pass the bill, 220-215. He warned, however, that his vote does not necessarily mean he will vote for final passage of Obamacare. Others in both houses of Congress, having mastered Politics 101 and being positioned to extract a reward for their votes, have said likewise.

Accordingly, the stage seems set for the mother of all Congressional shakedowns in the next few weeks as Democratic leadership goes, hat in hand, in search of enough votes to prevent opponents from thwarting enactment of Obamacare. How much the shopping spree in a seller’s market will cost taxpayers is anyone’s guess.

You don’t have to be a Christmas Scrooge, though, to predict that the asking price for those final few votes that could clinch the deal may make the $300 million tab for the 2009 Louisiana Purchase in the first round of voting seem like chump change.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers can reach him by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.net.

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