THE SCENE in the U.S. Senate yesterday encapsulated what's wrong with health-care reform - and how badly the nation's legislative branch is broken.
In an attempt to slow down the debate, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., used an arcane Senate rule to force the full reading of a 767-page amendment offered by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., which would have taken eight to 10 hours.
Even more telling was the amendment being read: It called for setting up a single-payer health-care system by opening up Medicare to everybody. Well into the third hour of the reading of the amendment, Sanders withdrew it - it had been largely symbolic anyway - but it reminded us again that a single-payer system is the only way to achieve the kind of reform the nation desperately needs.
(The nation won't get single-payer any time soon, but an actual bipartisan effort to adopt a single-payer system in Pennsylvania is under way, with hearings held yesterday in Harrisburg.)
Even though a majority of Americans support a single-payer system, there was never a chance they would get it. And even though a majority of Americans also want a "public option" - a government-administered alternative to private insurance - they aren't going to get that either.
For that we can thank not only Senate Republicans, but also "independent" Joe Lieberman.
In a tour de force of hypocrisy and bad faith, Lieberman threatened to join a Republican filibuster if the Senate bill contained any form of a public option, no matter how watered down. Then, even though he has supported a Medicare "buy-in" for years, Lieberman - who's pocketed more $1 million in campaign donations from the health-care industry - threatened to filibuster unless that provision was taken out.
Even after humiliating liberals, Lieberman likely won't be "punished" for it: Democrats will still need him for important votes on jobs, immigration, and cap-and-trade legislation.
His oversize power and that of Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson, who still is not a sure vote to stop a filibuster, illustrate once again how dysfunctional the Senate has become. After this is over - if it ever is - a 1995 proposal by Sen. Tom Harken, D-Iowa, to reduce the power of the filibuster to stop legislation cold, while not ending it completely, should be seriously considered.
In the meantime, the question remains: Is the weakened health-care-reform bill better than nothing, or worse? If we have to choose, and it appears we do, we say it's better than nothing.
As far from the ideal as it is, the Senate bill still represents significant improvements in what we have now - and would slow significantly the nation's march toward bankruptcy due to health-care costs. It immediately provides $5 billion to buy insurance for "uninsurable" people, allows parents to carry children on their policies up to age 26, reduces drug costs for seniors, and tightens regulations. It would eventually cover 31 million more people, and that's a lot of lives saved: A recent Harvard study found that 45,000 people die each year for lack of insurance. Besides, if we were to start over, as some suggest, we would face the same cast of characters that created the current debacle. Better to take the deal now and begin pushing for improvements - in both reform and the legislative process.