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Health Care Reform Moves to the Senate

November 30, 2009 - by Donny Shaw

The Senate today comes back from Thanksgiving recess to begin their health care debate. Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid [D, NV] has said that he plans to keep the Senate in session nights and weekends until the debate is over. With senators form both parties preparing amendments to change almost every aspect of the 2,074 page bill and Republicans vowing a “holy war” to prevent its passage, the debate that begins today is expected to be one of the longest and most contentious in decades.

Here’s where things stand: The Democratically controlled 111th Congress has passed health care legislation designed to reform the insurance industry and expand coverage through five congressional committees and the full House of Representatives. Right now, things are further along in the legislative process that any of the previous Administrations that have attempted comprehensive reform of the U.S. health care system (Carter, Clinton etc.) ever got. So far, in all the votes that have been taken, only one Republican – Rep. Anh Cao [R, LA- 2] – has voted in favor of the bill. The House passed their version of the bill on November 16 by a vote of 220-215, but passage in the Senate is still uncertain.

On Saturday November 21, Senate Democrats voted unanimously to defeat a Republican filibuster of beginning debate of their health care bill (which you can read in full at this link). However, before voting to defeat the filibuster, several centrist Democrats said that they intend to join with Republicans to filibuster the bill from ever coming to a final vote on passage if its provisions related to the public option are not changed by amendments.

“My vote today to move forward on this important debate should in no way be construed by the supporters of this current framework as an indication of how I might vote as this debate comes to an end,” said Sen. Blanche Lincoln [D, AR], one of the Democrats who has been most opposed to the public option, before voting to defeat the filibuster. The debate and amendment process to resolve all outstanding issues with the bill begins officially today at 3 p.m ET.

The centrists all have different takes on the public option. Some want it to be reduced to an opt-in plan for states to choose (or not choose), some want it attached to a “trigger” that would start it up if private insurers don’t expand coverage enough, and some want it to be scrapped altogether. Republicans are planning to delay the bill every step of the way, so it will take 60 votes for the Democrats to defeat a filibuster on ending debate and bringing the bill to a final vote. With the Democrats only controlling 60 votes in the Senate, their challenge is to find a compromise that holds their entire caucus together or wins the support of centrist Republicans like Sen. Susan Collins [R, ME] and Sen. Olympia Snowe [R, ME]. The Washington Independent is maintaining a public option scoreboard that includes key quotes from the eight senators considered to be on-the-fence on the issue.

The Hill’s Jeffrey Young has a great piece outlining all of the big issues the Senate will be taking up as they begin debating the health care bill. The public option is the most widely discussed issue in the bill, but other issues, like affordability and tax plans, are just as important and deserving of more attention.

More good preview coverage of the debate: WSJ, WaPo, Jonathan Cohn, The Caucus.

The whole debate and amendment process in the Senate could last anywhere from a couple weeks to several months. As Carrie Budoff Brown at The Politico reports, wrapping up the debate rests largely on the Democratic leadership’s ability to negotiate behind the scenes and strike a deal on the public option that can win 60 votes. Publicly, Harry Reid says still plans on finishing the bill by Christmas.

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  • dcornwall 11/30/2009 11:10am

    A question — If Senators ran out of things to say, would they still need 60 votes to end debate? It may sound ignorant, but I’m thinking of Mr. Smith goes to Washington. Jimmy Stewart’s character can only hold up a bill while he keeps talking and he seemingly does so for several days straight. So, in the unlikely event that Senator Reid decided to set aside ALL other Senate business and keep the Senate debating, could there theoretically come a point where Republicans and their anti-plan Democrat allies simply get too hoarse to continue?

    I’m not saying this is desired or makes good policy, just wondering if there is any circumstance this could happen.

  • Comm_reply
    LucasFoxx 11/30/2009 7:38pm

    They can yield to each other can keep it all going indefinitely. One has to wonder what the effect would be in the age of C-SPAN. It was one thing to read the telephone book or something in a test of wills within the chamber. It might be another thing altogether with their antics on display 24/7 for all their constituents. Could they do it in such a way that would garner public outcry in their favor? Hard to say.

  • Comm_reply
    spender 11/30/2009 7:54pm

    As I understand it, they don’t really have to say anything. As long as there are 41 Senators who say they will filibuster the bill, the other 59 just take it as read that a filibuster is actually happening and can go about their business. It’s called a “procedural filibuster.”

    I guess it’s like that scene in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where Ford convinces Mr. Prosser that as long as the demolition crew has accepted the fact that Arthur plans to lie in front of the bulldozer all day, he doesn’t actually have to do it, and he and Ford can go down to the pub for a while.

    To be honest, given this rule, I’m not exactly sure why any bills are able to pass with fewer than 60 votes. The two theories I have are that either 1) I misunderstand something about the process, or 2) Senators know they have to work together, and that voters don’t know how their rules work, so they’re only obstructionist about the TV circus stuff. Neither case would surprise me.

  • Moderated Comment

  • dcornwall 12/02/2009 5:12pm

    Spender, I understand the procedural filibuster concept and I think your HHGG comparison is spot on. I still wonder whether the filibuster would be used as much if the Senate leadership actually forced people to talk while engaged and had a rule that if there was five minutes worth of silence without a Senator actually willing to hop up and start talking, the debate was over. It might force the minority to pick their fights more carefully and provide lots of harmful campaign ad clips until the practice was truly rare.

    I’m also sad that things like the PATRIOT Act or “use of force” resolutions never seem to have filibusters threatened against them.

  • LucasFoxx 12/02/2009 7:39pm

    Yeah, I was definately refering to an old fashioned Mr. Smith Goes to Washington fillibuster. I like Harkin’s idea of making them actually stand up and hold the floor.

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