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GOP request for reading of 767 pages stalls health debate

Updated Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009 | 5:17 p.m.

WASHINGTON -- Just when it seemed that Senate Democrats were on a path to pass health care reform by Christmas, one Republican senator halted the process Wednesday by demanding the full reading of a 767-page amendment.

Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma insisted on having the clerks read the entire text of a long-shot amendment to create a national single-payer health care system.

Liberals have historically pursued such a universal care system, but the amendment from Sen. Bernard Sanders, an Independent from Vermont and among the Senate's most progressive members, is highly unlikely to win enough votes for passage.

No such single-payer system is proposed in the health care reform bills in either the House or Senate.

Sanders' legislation is what Washington often calls a message amendment, designed simply to make a statement and put lawmakers on record with their votes.

But Coburn's objection -- backed by the full support of the Republican leadership -- is seriously messing up the floor schedule.

It took the clerk nearly 20 minutes to read the amendment's six-page introduction -- ensuring what is estimated to be at least a 10 to 12 hour reading. Some say the reading could last hours longer.

Democrats were livid, and even staff in the Capitol were asking if the manuever would dash plans to adjourn by Christmas.

"We know what's going on here, they want to slow this down and stop us," said Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat. "Does this sound like a good faith effort?"

Coburn, who relishes his place among senators as Dr. No, said he was merely trying to let the public know the contents of the amendment if single-payer is a longterm goal of Democrats.

"We're going to understand what single-payer's all about," Coburn said. "We're going to read it and let the American people see."

Within a couple of hours, Sanders withdrew his amendment, ending the reading. The clerks had reached about page 40.

Coburn declined to say if he would make similar moves on the next steps, which are criticial catch-all amendments to begin moving the bill to a final vote, but indicated that seemed unlikely.

But it may not matter.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid needs to begin taking procedural steps now to finish the bill by Christmas.

Reid, however, was undeterred, and told reportes in brief hallway remarks the Senate would finish the bill before leaving.

When exactly that might be remains to be seen.

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