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Senate Begins its Health Care Debate

November 19, 2009 - by Donny Shaw

Today, the Senate begins what by all accounts will be a lengthy and contentious debate of their health care reform legislation. Unlike the House, whose health care bill was brought to the floor and approved on the same day, the Senate is embarking on a month or more of procedural votes and controversial amendments on all sorts of issues. The difference lies in the Senate rules, which give the minority party — the Republicans — much more power than in the House to stall and block legislation.

Below, I’ve outline the legislative process the Senate will be following to debate health care. But first, some important links:

Now for the convoluted procedure the Senate will be following:

The debate that begins today is, technically, on defeating a Republican filibuster of proceeding to debate of an unrelated House bill, H.R. 3590. The Democrats are bringing up the House bill instead of their own Senate bill because the Constitution requires all legislation affecting taxes or revenues to originate in the House. Since the Senate Democrats’ health care bill includes a number of tax increases and revenue provisions, they’re using the unrelated House bill as a “shell.” Its text will be completely replaced by the health care bill text, which exists in the form of a “substitute amendment,” if adopted.

On Saturday night at 8 p.m. ET, the Senate is scheduled to vote on defeating a filibuster of debating the shell bill, a motion also known as invoking “cloture.” That vote require a three-fifths majority (60 affirmative votes) to pass. If it passes, Senate Republicans can then force Democrats to wait 30 hours before the Senate can hold a simple up-or-down vote on actually proceeding to debate the shell bill. If cloture is invoked on Saturday night, that would put the up-or-down vote on proceeding to the bill on Monday morning at the earliest, though the Senate is currently scheduled to be on Thanksgiving recess then.

Once the motion to proceed has finally been approved, Senate Democrats will then move to defeat a second filibuster of considering the bill. This one will actually be on the text of the health care bill, in the form of a substitute amendment. Democrats will again have to find 60 votes just to proceed to an up-or-down vote on replacing the text of the shell bill with the health care text. That second cloture vote will most likely happen on November 30, when the Senate returns from recess. Once it passes, it would set up another up-or-down vote on December 1st to begin debate of the health care bill text proper. At that point comes the amendment process and, eventually, votes to end debate and pass the bill, which could possibly happen before Christmas but could also drag into 2010.

This Saturday’s vote is crucial. If it doesn’t pass, the health care reform effort will falter in a major way. Senate Democrats would be back to the drawing board to draft an entirely new bill designed to attract more votes. But if Saturday’s vote is successful, the bill moves forward to amendment and likely to passage. The Congressional Research Service recently found that 97.6 percent of all bills that are have cloture invoked on a motion to proceed are eventually given final approval by the chamber.

As it stands, three conservative Democrats — Nelson, Landrieu and Lincoln — have major problems with the bill and have not committed to voting on Saturday to let the debate proceed. No Republicans will be voting to allow the debate to move forward, so Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid [D, NV] needs all 60 members of his caucus to stand together and vote in favor. Asked by reporters on Thursday whether he thought he would have the votes he said only, “We’ll find out when the votes are taken.”

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