Senate Democrats, who by their silence largely allowed Republicans to frame the debate over White House plans to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have turned to Majority Whip Durbin to make sure the same thing doesn't happen with the high-stakes debate about health care.
Senate Minority Leader McConnell has launched daily attacks on the public insurance option in healthcare reform legislation since Congress returned from the Memorial Day recess, just as he hammered away at the Guantanamo plan before the break. This time, Durbin and some other Democrats are hitting back with point-by-point rebuttals.
"The impression was that if he was allowed to go unanswered that many people might be convinced," Durbin said. "But if you go to the floor and tell the other side of the story, rebut the argument, I think we have a good thing to tell."
From April 20 to late May, McConnell ripped Senate Democrats nearly every day for backing a White House effort to close the detention facility without a plan for relocating its occupants.
The floor speeches -- more than 20 in all -- were little noted when they started, but senators in both parties later credited the repetitive and unanswered attacks with helping drive the Democratic Caucus to vote overwhelmingly to strip funding to close Guantanamo from the FY09 supplemental spending bill.
That will not happen on health care, Senate Democrats vow.
McConnell argues that the public insurance option in the plan developed by Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy and backed by the White House will drive private insurers from the market, result in long waits for care and lead, in some cases, to treatment being denied.
Pointing to McConnell's descriptions of Canadian and British citizens who have had to wait years for vital treatments, Durbin cited existing delays in the United States.
"The senator from Kentucky says, 'we don't want a Canadian plan. We don't want a British plan. We don't want a New Zealand plan.'" Durbin said. "He's right. We want an American approach."
Democratic leadership aides said Durbin, after consulting with Majority Leader Reid and the Democratic Caucus, decided last week to aggressively counter McConnell on health care and, from now on, on the closure of Guantanamo, for which the White House still hopes to get funds.
"It's no accident that Sen. McConnell is doing this repeatedly," Durbin said. "And so clearly there is [a] Republican message strategy and we think there's another side of the story. We're going to make a point of saying that on that floor."
GOP leadership aides shrugged off Democratic efforts to counter McConnell's attacks.
"Maybe if Democrats spent less time shadowing the Republican leader and more time listening to him, their spin would be less pathetic and people wouldn't laugh every time they feigned an interest in bipartisanship," one Republican aide said.
This article appears in the June 13, 2009 edition of NJ Daily.