WASHINGTON -- Picture, if you will, a hundred senators locked in their Capitol Hill offices for a week poring over the most minute details of the Democratic leadership's compromise version of health care reform.
And while you're at it, imagine 435 members of the House similarly burning the midnight oil over the version that the Democratic leaders there have come up with.
That, essentially, is what Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole and House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich would have the public believe would happen if only the Democratic leadership in both houses would hold off what the Republicans consider a rush to judgment.
But the notion of the Senate or the House putting aside all other business for what Dole has called "uninterrupted time" to study what the Democrats finally come up with has about as much credibility as the good legislators' turning back their paychecks.
No issue has been more thoroughly discussed and debated than health care reform. Ever since Hillary Clinton formed her task force to take public and private soundings and produce a bill, the issue has almost been talked to death.
While it is true that many versions of the legislation have been floated and eventually reported out of five different congressional committees, the essentials of what is being sought and ideas of how to get it have been stamped into the heads of the 535 members of Congress.
They have been bombarded, along with the general public, with an onslaught of radio, television and newspaper advertisements from all manner of special interests on both sides of the debate, and some in the middle. For the Republicans to whine now that they need more time for sober examination and reflection is a transparent cop-out.
It is true enough that the explicit details finally hammered out by the Democratic leaders from the porridge of proposals passed by congressional committees are coming to the good legislators for the first time as a package. But the elements have been on the table for many months, and any member of the Senate or House who is not familiar with them by now deserves not a week of "uninterrupted time," but a permanent vacation.
It is true also that seldom if ever has a major piece of legislation been obliged to run as torturous a route to consideration on the House and Senate floors as health care reform. With the stakes incredibly high, politically and financially, everybody wanted to get into the act and did so. But along the way, Congress educated itself on the issue -- or should have -- to the point that it is time to act, not cram like college sophomores on the night before finals.
The Republican pitch now, from both Dole and Gingrich, is that haste makes waste and that there is a danger of passing harmful legislation. They argue that it is more prudent to pass limited legislation on points of agreement with the Democrats, such as providing insurance coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions and "portability" -- insurance that moves with you if you quit or lose your job.
That makes sense, except you have to ask yourself why, if the Republicans now think such coverage is worthwhile and important, they never proposed it before President Clinton put the whole issue of health care reform on the table. The fact is that the Republicans and many conservative Democrats, and their friends in the insurance industry, never took health care reform seriously until Clinton forced it on them.
All this is not to say that the Clinton administration didn't make a botch of advancing and managing the fight for reform. Bill Clinton as candidate talked about going to the mat against the insurance industry, yet his plan once he got to the White House called for working through the powerful private industry.
Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell has taken Dole up on his willingness to forgo the August recess to see to it that a health care bill comes to a vote this year. If it doesn't, legislators up for re-election in November may pay a price. Gingrich seems to think blocking a bill may be the better politics in dealing with a confused electorate, and that is what the call for "uninterrupted" study time is all about.