That Stubborn Parliamentary Procedure

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on March 12, 2010

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I am sure that at this point, the Obama Administration and Congressional Democrats would be delighted and relieved to ram health care reform through Congress. I almost don’t blame them; the process has been long and arduous, to say the least. But the rules keep getting in the way:

Republicans said they won a parliamentary victory as they try to fight Democrats’ efforts to pass legislation to overhaul the U.S. health-care system.

Republicans said President Barack Obama has to sign a Senate health-care bill into law before the House and Senate can approve changes to it under a process called reconciliation. The Senate parliamentarian told Republicans that a reconciliation bill has to “make changes in law,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“This would be another headwind for Democrats in the House” who oppose provisions in the Senate bill, said John Sullivan, a health-care analyst at Boston-based Leerink Swann & Co. “Their biggest fear has been that they vote for the Senate version and they never get the relief they’re looking for.”

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, declined to comment.

I take it this means Manley is disappointed.

Michael Barone analyzes the situation in the House. His conclusion?

“If there is a path to 216 votes, I am confident the Speaker will find it,” writes Bush White House legislative strategy analyst Keith Hennessey on his blog. “She has a remarkable ability to bend her colleagues to her will.” True, but perhaps that ability has led Democrats in the White House and on Capitol Hill to embark on what will be remembered as a mission impossible.

Mrs. Pelosi, whom I have known for almost 30 years, may turn out to be even shrewder than I think. But she may be facing a moment as flummoxing as the one when Democratic Speaker Thomas Foley lost the vote on the rule to consider the crime and gun control bill in August 1994, or when Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert saw the Mark Foley scandal explode on the last day of the session in September 2006. Both were moments when highly competent and dedicated House speakers saw their majorities shattered beyond repair.

That moment, if it comes, will occur some time between now and the Easter recess. The Democrats’ struggle to get 216 votes is high stakes poker.

This would tend to support Barone’s suspicion that the votes just are not there:

The health care reform bill passed by the Senate on Christmas Eve appears to be dead on arrival in the House, as six anti-abortion Democrats intend to join the ranks of lawmakers who plan to vote against the legislation, Fox News has confirmed.

Six new no votes would be enough to kill the Senate bill, and several more fence-sitting lawmakers are under pressure from both sides of the aisle.

Foremost among the six nos is Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., whose anti-abortion amendment to the House version of the legislation got the bill passed in that chamber last year.

In addition to Stupak, Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois has gone on the record as changing his vote to no if asked to pass the Senate bill, which some argue doesn’t do enough to forbid tax-funded abortions. “Protecting the sanctity of life is a matter of principle,” Lipinski said.

Other Democratic representatives who voted yes on the House bill but are a no vote if the Senate language remains are Reps. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Kathy Dahlkemper of Pennsylvania, Steve Driehaus of Ohio and Marion Berry of Arkansas.

I wouldn’t be surprised if eventually, some sort of deal is cut with the Stupak caucus to allow certain members to vote for the health care bill, with the promise that their concerns will be alleviated in reconciliation. But those members ought to be aware that Senate Democrats might torpedo any reconciliation effort aimed at appeasing members of the Stupak caucus.

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