By Liz Halloran

While a nation and its capital remained consumed with Tiger Woods' marital state, White House party crashers, and the president's imminent Afghanistan speech, debate on health care stumbled on Tuesday in a nearly-deserted Senate.

Remember health care?

Senate floor debate on an $849 billion, 10-year health system overhaul proposed by Democrats was once expected to dominate Capitol Hill as the year drew to a close.

But on Tuesday events conspired to relegate -- at least temporarily - what had been a summer spectacle to a late-year sideshow, with a Senate floor lineup that featured practiced, familiar partisan speeches from both sides of the aisle.

And the prominent re-emergence of grandma as a Republican talking point.

Not, however, the grandma who over the summer was going to be victimized by the legislation's non-existent "death panels."

This grandma, says GOP Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, is going to lose Medicare benefits so savings can be used to pay for new government health insurance coverage proposed by Democrats.

"Don't cut Grandma's Medicare for a new program," Crapo said to an audience of two other senators, one reporter and a handful of spectators in the gallery.

"Spend it on Grandma," he said, referring repeatedly to grandma while urging his colleagues to vote for an amendment offered yesterday by GOP Sen. John McCain that would strip provisions in the bill designed to decelerate government spending on Medicare.

But that decreased spending, bill supporters say, would be achieved through ferreting out Medicare fraud and abuse -- and would help pay for government efforts to expand the number of Americans covered by insurance.

In a brisk retort to Crapo, Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut asserted that his party's plan would "in fact" strengthen Medicare. After all, he asked, would the AARP have endorsed the legislation if it diminished the government's health coverage program for the elderly?

So it went on the Senate floor.

The real deals, as usual, were being made elsewhere. And Monday afternoon when debate began, Capitol hallways were thick with administration officials, from White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

But the increasingly real problem of paying for health care overall -- and not grandma -- has made those deals Democrats need to make increasingly difficult, particularly now with Congress already debating whether and how to pay for the president's planned Afghanistan troop surge.

Congress also has to find a way to pay for its recently-approved $210 billion so-called "doc fix" that prevents cuts to Medicare fees paid to doctors, and faces the reality of having to raise the nation's debt ceiling in coming days.

"There's no such thing as free health care," GOP Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona said.

Or free wars.

categories: Congress

3:08 - December 1, 2009