WASHINGTON -- The Senate was up to its old tricks Monday evening. It prepared to pass, without debate and under a procedure requiring unanimous consent, a federal infusion of $9 billion into state Medicaid programs under the pretext of Katrina relief. The bill, drafted in secret under bipartisan auspices, was stopped cold when Republican Sen. John Ensign voiced his objection. The bill's Democratic sponsors railed in outrage against Ensign, a 47-year-old first-termer from Las Vegas, Nev., who usually keeps a low profile. But he was not acting alone. Ensign belongs to, and, indeed, originated, a small group of Republicans who intend to stand guard on the Senate floor against such raids on the Treasury as Monday night's failure. The group includes Sen. John McCain, who long has tried to wean Republicans from ever greater federal spending but attracted little support from GOP colleagues until recently.The bill they stopped - or delayed - was pork at its worst. You find a specific need that is widely accepted, then you put your own pet project on it.
The "emergency" Medicaid bill is a classic case of how government grows and spending soars. Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln, concerned by health problems of evacuees in her state of Arkansas, introduced a bill increasing Medicaid funds to the states. The Senate Finance Committee's Republican chairman, Chuck Grassley, and its ranking Democrat, Max Baucus, drafted the scaled-down, $9 billion substitute and marked it for quick passage. No hearings, no debate, no trouble... Ensign noted that Congress had appropriated an extra $62 billion in the wake of Katrina. He pointed to the fact that the bill is a general Medicaid enrichment unrelated to hurricanes. It makes sure that 29 states scheduled for federal Medicaid cuts would be "held harmless" -- that is, would not suffer a reduction. That list is headed by $78 million in extra funds for Alaska.The Alaska pork master, Don Young, is at it, even in the Senate! The two Republicans from South Carolina are on the team also - Lindey Graham - we are watching him - and Jim DeMint.