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The House, Not Reconciliation, Is The Key To A Health Care Bill

March 8, 2010 - by Eric Naing

In a scenario that has been replayed over and over again this Congress, House Democrats pass an important, often politically dangerous bill while Senate Democrats, hamstrung by the filibuster, drag their feet or fail to follow through with a bill of their own – think the House health care bill with a public option (H.R.3962), a climate bill with cap-and-trade (H.R.2454) or even the $154 bill House jobs bill (H.R.2847). But as health care inches toward a finish line, budget reconciliation has reversed this dynamic.

By lowering the 60-vote threshold mandated by a GOP filibuster to 51 votes, or 50 votes plus a tie-breaker from Vice President Joe Biden, reconciliation makes passing a package of changes to the health care bill (H.R.3590) through the Senate much easier. In fact, Open Left reports that at least 50 senators are now on record as open to using reconciliation. Check out their great spreadsheet here.

Republicans have previously focused their attack on reconciliation, saying that it would “be the end of the Senate” and are even going after the Senate parliamentarian who referees the process, but they are starting to realize that reconciliation is hardly the most important part of the process. The key vote will take place in the House. The National Review’s Jeffrey Anderson explains:

All of the talk about “reconciliation” seems to have distracted people — like a red herring — from a simple but crucial fact: If the House goes first, as now appears to be the plan, and passes the Senate health-care overhaul, the president would then have a bill in hand that had passed both houses of Congress, and — whether reconciliation subsequently succeeded or failed in the Senate — we would have Obamacare.

The main reason for the reconciliation package is to placate concerns that many House Democrats have with the Senate health care bill – concerns like Ben Nelson’s “Cornhusker kickback” and the excise tax on “Cadillac” health insurance plans. But that only comes after the House passes the Senate bill. And once that happens, the bill is technically one presidential signature away from becoming law, reconciliation or no reconciliation.

Congressional Republicans are starting to recognize this and are now trying to scare House Democrats by playing up the growing animosity between the two chambers of Congress. Here’s Sen. Judd Gregg [R, NH] as quoted by the Hill:

“They’re using reconciliation to pass the great big bill,” Gregg said during an appearance on CNBC. “Once they pass the great big bill, I wouldn’t be surprised if the White House didn’t care if reconciliation passed. I mean, why would they?”

Signing the Senate bill and forgetting the reconciliation fix would be a colossal gesture of ill will toward House Democrats on behalf of the White House making it very unlikely to happen, but the fear that it might is a powerful one to the many House Democrats who feel hung out to dry by the Senate.

This shift in tactics, however, doesn’t mean that Senate Republicans will give up on the strategy of gumming up the reconciliation precess by offering hundreds of amendments. But as the health care process moves on, recognize that the truly important vote will take place in the House and that it is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi [D, CA-8], and not Sen. Harry Reid [D, NV], who has the hardest job in Washington right now.

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