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Let's Get Ready to Reconcile! ...the Senate and House Health Care Bills, That Is

March 22, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

The budget reconciliation circus we’ve been blogging about for months begins in earnest today.

According to the Democrats’ calendar, the Senate convenes at 2:15 p.m. ET and will immediately start debating the Reconciliation Act of 2010. The bill contains about 120 pages of fixes to the health care bill — reconciling differences between the versions of health acre passed by the Senate and House — plus some unrelated legislation to end a program that subsidizes student loan companies.  This is the bill that was passed by the House on Sunday night right after they passed health care reform.

It’s going be considered under budget reconciliation rules. Budget reconciliation is a process that was created by Congress in 1974 to give future Congresses a quicker and easier way to pass stuff it had factored for in its annual budget. Lo and behold, this year, Congress factored for health care reform — described in the 2010 budget bill as “changes in laws within” the jurisdiction of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee that would reduce the deficit by at least $1 billion by 2014.

Sounds suspiciously like health care reform to me! And student loan reform seems to fit too!

So here’s what they are allowed to do. Unlike most bills, which the Republicans filibuster and cause the Democrats to find a supermajority of 60 votes to break the filibuster and pass, the reconciliation bill can only be debated for a maximum of 20 hours before it is voted on. That means no filibusters and no 60-vote “cloture” hurdles to be passed. Budget reconciliation bills can be passed by a simple majority of 51 votes. According to a letter Sen. Harry Reid [D, NV] released the other day, the Democrats easily have the 51 votes to pass it and send it to Obama to become law.

But, as you can probably imagine, it’s not as simple as that.

The Republicans have pledged to do everything they can, and maybe even some things they can’t, to mutilate the bill so that when the Senate passes it, it looks different from the version passed by the House. That way, the House would have to take another vote on it. If it’s a worse bill than the version they passed on Sunday the House could theoretically vote it down.

To be clear, even if this bill never becomes law, health care reform will. In fact, it is scheduled to be signed into law by Obama today at 11:15 a.m. ET.

The Republicans’objections to the reconciliation bill are purely political. The bill does stuff like remove provisions that were included to “buy off” cretins senators’ votes, lower the tax penalty related to the individual mandate, and reduce fraud, waste and abuse. The Republicans support these things, many of them are Republican ideas, and yet they will try to kill the bill.

They have basically two procedurals options available to them. We’ll be talking about this all week for sure, but I’ll explain them quickly here.

1) Byrd Rule Objections — The Senate “Byrd Rule,” named after Sen. Robert Byrd [D, WV], states that all provisions of budget reconciliation bills must have a more than incidental effect on the budget. It has six specific requirements. Republicans can and will offer points of order to strike provisions of the bill that they think violate the Byrd Rule. The point of order would have to be sustained by the Senate Parliamentarian. If it is, the Democrats can move to waive the Byrd Rule, but that motion would take 60 votes to pass and the Dems will fail. Basically, if the Parliamentarian rules in favor of the Republicans’ points of order, the provision will be struck from the bill. As I wrote here, over the Byrd Rule’s 25-year history, 19 points of order have been used to remove provisions under the Byrd Rule, sometimes removing as many as 46 provisions all at once.

The Democrats have won their first Byrd Rule battle already. Roll Call is reporting that the Parliamentarian has said that he will rule against a Republican point of order that the provision dealing with the “Cadillac” health plan tax violated the Byrd Rule’s restriction on provisions affecting Social Security.

2) Amendments — Once the 20 hours of debate are over, this will be the dilatory tactic du jour. The Republicans’ plan is to submit an endless stream of amendments with no goal other than delaying the final vote. You see, under Senate rules, when the debate time is over, all pending amendments can be called on for votes, without any debate, before the Senate can move onto their final vote. And I believe that new amendments could still be submitted while debate time is over but other amendments are still pending.This is what is known as a “vote-a-rama” — amendments get called up and read, then they get voted on by a call of the “yeas and nays.” This is like what happened in the House Rules Committee Saturday night as they were settling the rule that was used to bring the health care bill to the floor. You were watching that, right?

David Waldman at Congress Matters thinks that if the Republicans use this tactic to delay the final vote forever and ever and ever, the Democrats can call on the Senate Parliamentarian to rule all amendments that are dilatory on their face out of order. It’s an interesting possibility. We’ll have to wait and see what happens — this is uncharted procedural territory.

For now, today’s Senate session begins the 20 debate period on the reconciliation bill, which will be divided 10-hours each between the D’s and R’s. You can catch all the action live on C-SPAN 2 (stream it online here).

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