WASHINGTON Under a Democratic dare, Senate Republicans on Monday blocked a bill that would aid victims of torture, disability and disease, insisting the legislation would add to the deficit and demanding that Congress first act to lower soaring gas prices.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid rolled about three dozen bills into a hard-to-resist measure, dubbed the measure the "Advancing America's Priorities Act," and warned that its defeat would mean society's neediest would have wait until next year for the government's help.
"In the meantime there will be much suffering and mental distress as a result of not moving forward on these matters," the Nevada Democrat told his Republican colleagues. He predicted election-year consequences.
"Next time you see someone in a wheelchair at home, explain to them about how you voted against moving forward on something that may get them out of that wheelchair," he said.
It didn't work.
Republicans, led by Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, sank the bill. The 52-40 vote fell short of the required support from 60 senators to move the bill toward a final, up-or-down vote.
A yes vote, Republicans said, was a vote to shift from the debate in progress over ways to help relieve the burden of soaring gas prices.
"They're using every trick to get us away from dealing with high gas prices," said Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "Republicans won't let them change the subject. Republicans will vote to keep the Senate focused on the number one domestic issue facing our nation."
Coburn had long blocked all of the bills in the package, arguing that they duplicated existing programs or added to the federal deficit.
Still, three Republicans one retiring and two facing tough challenges this year sided with Democrats to hold an up-or-down vote on Reid's bill. They are retiring Sen. John Warner of Virginia, Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon and Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota.
Reid sought to compose the package of the most innocuous measures blocked by Coburn, choosing mostly measures that overwhelmingly passed the House and have at least one Republican co-sponsor.
They included the Emmitt Till Unsolved Crime Act, aimed at investigating unsolved civil rights era crimes; the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Act; a runaway and homeless youth bill; a bill to combat child exploitation by pornographers; a measure to create a database for Lou Gehrig's disease victims and aid for new mothers suffering from depression.
Coburn and other Republicans said they support most of the bills included in Reid's single bill. But overall, the legislation would have created programs costing $10 billion without proposing ways to pay for them. He complained that Reid was trying to force legislation to a vote without debate and the right to offer amendments.
"We don't want the American people to know what we would rather do in secret," Coburn has said.
It isn't the first run-in this year between Reid and Coburn. In April Reid, put together a package of 62 popular land bills, sidestepping Coburn's objections to some, and limited amendments Coburn wanted to offer. Coburn called the package bloated and unnecessary, but it passed 91-4.
"For those of you who may not know this, you cannot negotiate with Coburn," Reid said at a news conference last week. "It's just something that you learn over the years is a waste of time."