A Medicare fix

FILE ART: Republican Speaker John A. Boehner and Democratic Representative Nancy Pelosi have agreed on a bill.
FILE ART: Republican Speaker John A. Boehner and Democratic Representative Nancy Pelosi have agreed on a bill. ASSOCIATED PRESS/ROLL CALL

Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth: In an all-too-rare but refreshing show of harmony, the U.S. House of Representatives last week approved a bipartisan compromise bill that fixes a serious, long-festering problem with Medicare payments and sent it to the Senate...where it awaits an uncertain future.

Before we get to the problematic part, take another look at what the House managed to accomplish under a deal secretly worked out between Republican Speaker John Boehner and Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi: A bipartisan compromise bill. On an important issue. Without drama. Without threats of a government shutdown. Without shouting, fist-waving, naysaying or any other displays of dysfunction.

“Don’t look now, but we’re actually governing,” said an astounded Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-North Carolina. When was the last time you heard of such a thing? There was so much love in the chamber that one Republican even wished Rep. Pelosi a happy birthday!

The bill, which passed the House by a vote of 392-37, is a kind of Holy Grail in the realm of healthcare. It changes the way doctors are paid for treating Medicare patients, permanently blocking payment cuts that, all sides agree, are unfair to everyone involved.

For the past 17 years, Congress has kicked the can down the road by voting one-year fixes, totaling $150 billion, instead of devising a permanent solution that does away with the annual threat of reductions in Medicare payments and the consequent unwillingness of doctors to treat elderly patients.

The bill is not perfect, of course. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the measure’s costs will total $214 billion over the next decade, some of which will come from deeper budget deficits ($141 billion). That caused some grumbling from conservatives, but, in the end, most voted for it.

On the other side of the aisle, some Medicare recipients, mostly higher earners, would have to pay higher premiums. AARP, the seniors’ lobby, doesn’t like that. Democrats also wanted four more years of extra money for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which serves 8 million low-income children, rather than the bill’s two years.

In the end, however, both sides compromised because they understood that it was a good deal. The bill has enough good features to offset what lawmakers on one side or the other don’t like. That’s the nature of legislation, and of bipartisan lawmaking.

Now on to the Senate and Democratic leader Harry Reid.

Since losing control of the upper chamber in last November’s elections, Sen. Reid has been all too happy to play the role of spoiler, doing to the Republicans what they have done to Democrats for six years by blocking majority-backed legislation with the threat of a filibuster.

Senate Democrats are balking because this bill contains the Hyde Amendment, banning federal funds for abortions. We don’t like it either, but it should not be an excuse for blocking a good bill that makes no change in the abortion status quo. Democrats also want those four years for CHIP; they should settle for two and try again later.

If you look hard enough, you can find problems with any legislative solution, but that’s a recipe for gridlock. Republicans have done that for far too long and it has accomplished little except to bring Congress into disrepute. This is no time for Democrats to emulate them. Accept the compromise, and vote for the Medicare fix.