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What Will It Be, Speaker Pelosi: Curtain 1, 2 or 3?

March 15, 2010 - by Eric Naing

House Democrats are are considering three paths that would lead to a vote on health care by the end of the week. Two of the options would result in the Senate bill (H.R.3590) becoming the law of the land pending a successful vote, while the third option would kick responsibility for making the bill law over to the Senate.

The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn runs down the three options:

1) The House would vote on the two bills separately. Upon passage, the Senate bill would be ready for the president’s signature. The amendments, meanwhile, would go to the Senate for approval there. Call this the “Schoolhouse Rock” option.

2) The House would vote once. The vote would be on the amendments. But with that vote, the House would “deem” the Senate bill passed… At that point, the main bill would be ready to go to the president for his signature, while the amendments would go to the Senate for consideration there.

3) The House would vote once, just like in option (2). But in this case, the House would deem the Senate bill passed only after the Senate had approved the amendments. Once the Senate approved the amendments, then—and only then—could the main bill go to the president for signature.

Options 2 and 3 both would utilize the “self-executing” rule that allows the House to consider the Senate bill passed without technically having to directly vote for it. House Democrats object to several provisions in the Senate bill that were absent from the House bill (H.R.3962) like the “Cornhusker kickback” in which the government would pick up Nebraska’s expanded Medicaid costs. The self-executing rule allows House members to avoid supporting those provisions – albeit on a highly technical level.

If the House chooses either option 1 or 2, the Senate bill will have been passed by both chambers and would be sent to President Obama to be signed into law. Option 3, however, puts off passage of the bill until after the Senate approves a reconciliation package.

David Waldman reports that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi [D, CA-8] clearly prefers the third option. This is no surprise. One of the main dynamics of this stage of the health care debate has been the House’s animosity toward the Senate for failing to pass politically tough bills already advanced by the House. Option 3 would serve as a form of insurance against that.

But Cohn argues that this option opens up a new front of attack against the bill:

By contrast, if the House were to insist reform not become law until the Senate passes the amendments, the Republicans—and their base—would have every incentive to keep fighting, since by doing so they’d be fighting reform itself. If nothing else, they could drag out the process by attempting to introduce a series of their own amendments. Yes, that would be amendments to the amendments—and the Republicans could [go] on like that for quite a while. It would mean an extra week or two, at least, of headlines about legislative wrangling, which would alienate voters who are simply tired of this saga and want to hear about jobs. It would also mean an extra week or two for some unexpected, unthinkable political calamity to strike. It’d be possible, still, to end up with no legislation at all.

Republicans are committed to a strategy of delaying the reconciliation bill by offering hundreds of amendments. Making passage of the Senate bill contingent on getting a reconciliation fix through the Senate would put renewed urgency behind this plan. It also makes the final passage of the health care bill contingent on the largely uncharted and highly delicate process of using budget reconciliation to amend the bill.

UPDATE: It looks like curtain number three has been ruled out:

Apparently that idea is no longer under discussion. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, speaking Monday morning at a round-table discussion with bloggers and journalists, indicated the leadership had ruled out that approach. The reason, she said, was the Senate Parliamentarian, who had made it impractical to pass amendments to a bill that wasn’t yet signed into law.

I’m still not entirely certain what the Parliamentarian said; all of the accounts have been second hand. But the bottom line is clear: If and when the House votes on health care reform, the underlying Senate bill—the one that does most of the work of reform—will be ready for presidential signature.


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