WASHINGTON — Washington. -- George Mitchell, master of the Senate's health-care revels, spoke in a voice mingling reproach and regret. Republicans, he said, have been violating the democratic spirit by filibustering promiscuously. The next day Texas Republican Phil Gramm and Alabama Democrat Richard Shelby promised to oppose, like Horatius at the bridge, and with a filibuster if necessary, any radical expansion of government control of health care.
So within the health-care debate there is a debate about the ethics of obstructing. The latter debate illuminates the former by revealing the political weakness that is dictating the Democrats' desperate -- to pass a radical program before the November elections register the public's desires.
The idea that filibusters have become a serious problem is preposterous. Can anyone name anything of significance that an American majority has desired, strongly and protractedly, but has not received because of a filibuster? Who believes that insufficient activity is a defect of modern government?
It takes 60 votes to end a filibuster. Newsweek's entirely plausible poll shows 65 percent of Americans wanting Congress to delay health-care reform until next year. So Democrats sound strange saying that it is an offense against majority rule to make them get 60 votes before they can override the wishes of 65 percent of the public.
Senator Mitchell says that in the 19th century ''there were only 16 filibusters'' and ''for three-fourths of this century, there were fewer than one filibuster a year.'' And: ''In this Congress alone, I have had to file motions to end filibusters 55 times.'' But Mr. Mitchell's numbers about filibusters, like his numbers about health care, are misleading.
In the 19th century, before there was a cloture process for curtailing Senate debates (before 1917), the mere hint of a filibuster often sufficed to kill a bill. And Mr. Mitchell files cloture motions promiscuously, often merely in anticipation of a slight possibility of delaying tactics.
Filibusters, although important in protecting minority rights and indispensable in registering intensity as distinct from mere numbers in controversies, can be trivialized when used against mild policy proposals. The filibuster Senator Mitchell orchestrated against President Bush's proposal to cut capital-gains taxes was trivializing.
His 1,400-page health-care bill would produce a more sweeping and intrusive expansion of government than has been produced by any permanent measure in American history. It involves large issues of freedom, privacy and prudence. So a filibuster is a reasonable, proportionate recourse for opponents.
They believe, reasonably, that the bill would be literally lethal as law. For example, by slowing development of new pharmacological and other technologies, it would disrupt the pain-relieving, life-prolonging therapeutic revolution that America's health-care system has produced in our lifetimes.
Many Democrats profess to believe that they must pass something, anything, lest they face punishment at the polls. But President Clinton and the diminishing cohort of Democrats willing to be closely associated with him really want to force health-care legislation now for the same reason the president does not want to seek congressional approval for any invasion of Haiti: He and his allies are struggling to govern against the American grain.
Recently William Kristol, a Republican strategist, discerned ''the opportunity to turn the health-care debate into liberalism's Afghanistan -- the over-reaching that exposes liberalism's weaknesses and causes its collapse.'' And the debate has indeed highlighted the spirit of modern liberalism, as when Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., with a hauteur that would have made his great-grandfather proud, said, ''We're going to push through health-care reform regardless of the views of the American people.''
The liberals' strategy is to pass bills -- almost any bills will do -- in both houses, then go to conference and write a third bill as liberal as they can make it and still win final passage in both houses. By then Democrats will be eager to pass something and go home to campaign, so a bill more liberal than even Senator Mitchell's might pass.
A conference report cannot be amended. It would have to be stopped with non-stop talking, rather than with the scores of amendments that many Republicans and some Democrats will propose in the next few weeks in order to illuminate the myriad perversities lurking in Senator Mitchell's bill.
Any filibuster will cast a Senate minority in the role of defenders of the desires of an American majority. Filibusterers will risk being accused of ''obstructionism'' -- obstructing the largest peacetime expansion of government in history. That is a risk they should relish running.
9- George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.