Senate Republicans moved Monday to delay debate on a patients' rights bill pushed by the chamber's newly empowered Democrats, saying GOP lawmakers need time to review last-minute changes in the legislation.
The move threatens to push back until Wednesday or later debate that was scheduled to start today on a measure that would greatly expand patients' ability to sue health maintenance organizations.
Though Republicans insisted they were not engaged in a partisan ploy, Democrats decried the maneuver, which marks an acrimonious turn for the recently realigned Senate.
Republican Senate leaders--who, along with President Bush, oppose the Democratic version of the legislation--said they need more time to examine the so-called patients' bill of rights.
"There are a number of Republican senators who want to look over the fine print because of changes made last weekend," said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). "Our intention is to go to the bill as soon as senators are comfortable with it."
Asked when the GOP lawmakers might reach that level of comfort, Bonjean said he was not sure.
Democrats said the changes were minor modifications to legislation Congress has debated on and off for nearly five years, and charged that the GOP move was a partisan tactic designed to frustrate Democrats' ability to start moving on their agenda.
"If this is what they want to communicate to the American people about their priorities, so be it," said a Democratic leadership aide. "I think they run the risk of appearing to put political fighting ahead of the priorities of the families of this country."
The squabble comes at a fragile time when party leaders are still trying to sort out organizational changes needed in the Senate to reflect Democrats' new one-seat plurality.
Some observers speculated that Republicans may be using the delay tactic to serve as a reminder that they still control considerable levers of power in the Senate. Republican aides also expressed a certain amount of delight in using a tactic Democrats themselves often turned to while they were in the minority.
To cause the delay, Lott is threatening to object to a motion to proceed to debate on the patients' bill, a tactic that requires 60 votes to overcome.
Democrats said they believe they have those 60 votes, with the presumed backing of all 50 members of their caucus plus a number of moderate Republicans who would likely be unwilling to block progress on legislation that has bipartisan support and considered popular with the public.
But moving quickly to quash the GOP delay request could be uncomfortable for Democrats--including Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.)--who, as minority leader, often complained when Republicans sought to thwart similar tactical moves by Democrats.
Forcing a vote to end the GOP delay "certainly would not be Tom's first preference," a Democratic leadership aide said. Still, "I don't think we would back away from it on this bill."
The patients' bill is sponsored by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.).
Democrats moved Monday to pass a motion that would allow the Senate to begin debate on the bill. But Lott objected, saying initially that he hadn't been able to reach Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who is sponsoring a rival measure and helping to lead GOP opposition to the Democrats' bill.
Later, Lott said the delay also was needed to allow the Republicans more time to evaluate the recent changes to the Democrat-backed bill.
Times staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this story.