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Health Care Clash

April 2, 1946

The end of World War II brought unprecedented peacetime challenges to the Senate. The Republican minority, under the leadership of Ohio's Robert Taft, savored the prospect of victory in the upcoming 1946 midterm elections. For their part, many Democrats struggled to revive the spirit of New Deal progressive legislation.

On April 2, 1946, Montana Democrat James Murray convened his Committee on Education and Labor for the first hearing on comprehensive national health insurance. A resident of Butte, Montana, Murray had in the 1920s witnessed the manipulative practices of the Anaconda Copper Company. He consequently became a New Deal advocate for organized labor, small farmers, and other victims of big business.

Chairman Murray's 1946 bill targeted $50 million to finance health insurance programs for low-income Americans, for maternal and child care, and for medical research and education grants to states. He began his April 2 hearing by citing a Washington Post editorial that warned against applying the word "communistic" to programs designed for full employment, veterans' housing, and health insurance. He urged senators to avoid the American Medical Association's tactic of labeling health care legislation as "socialized medicine."

Murray's request brought an immediate objection from Robert Taft, the committee's second ranking Republican. "I consider it socialistic! It is in my mind the most socialistic measure ever considered by the Congress!" Murray advised Taft to wait his turn later in the hearing. Pointedly ignoring his chairman, Taft began reading a statement. Murray exploded, saying to Taft, "I don't propose to let you bluff me on a grandstand play. You have so much gall and nerve that you won't let anybody [else] complete a statement." After a 15-minute shouting match, the chairman bellowed, "Shut up right now, or I'll call the officers and have you removed from the room." Explaining that he had another meeting to attend in a few minutes, Taft continued speaking. Murray glared at Taft and said, "Shut your mouth up and get out of here." Taft responded by asking Murray for a committee recess until "you have recovered your temper." The chair lashed back to this son of a former president and chief justice, "You are so self-opinionated and think you are so important that you can come into any committee and disrupt it.

Taft stalked from the room with a promise to boycott all future hearings and to block the bill if it ever surfaced on the Senate floor.

Taft's promise, opposition by the AMA, and Republican gains in Congress delayed major health care legislation for another 18 years. Only in 1964, after the Democrats had rebuilt a sizeable majority, was Congress able to enact Medicare.