Bending the Rules

  • Share
  • Read Later

As the Massa implosion fades, Capitol Hill returns today to health care reform with both chambers considering obscure parliamentary procedures in order to pass legislation before Easter recess, which officially starts March 28. The House is on a shorter leash, with the White House pushing them to get something done before President Obama leaves for a tour of Indonesia and Australia next Thursday (the CW being that massive legislation is more easily passed with the president physically in Washington). Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, though, noticeably left the door open for missing that deadline in a pen and pad with reporters yesterday: “None of us have mentioned the 18th other than [White House Press Secretary Robert] Gibbs. We are trying to do this as soon as possible. That continues to be our objective.”

House leaders, Politico reports, are considering a self-executing rule – hoping to save their members from actually voting on the Senate bill. Such a move means the House would pass a rule saying if the Senate passes reconciliation, then they’ll consider the Senate bill passed. If B is followed by C then A will be enacted. But, there’s a problem with this strategy. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, whose committee reconciliation must go through, says it’s impossible to do “fixes” on a bill that hasn’t already been signed into law. In other words, the House must pass the Senate bill – Louisiana Purchase, Cornhusker Deal and other warts included (you can just imagine the TV ads House Republicans are gleefully contemplating) — and send it to Obama for his signature before the Senate can take up reconciliation. Those sweetheart deals are meant to be stripped in reconciliation. House and Senate negotiators have appealed to the parliamentarians to decide who is right and a decision is expected this week.

If you’re not already totally confused, there’s more. In the Senate, Dems are eyeing Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn and his promised “hundreds” of amendments warily. So warily that they’re considering an obscure procedural tactic some Republicans are labeling the “nuclear option.” Under reconciliation rules, debate is limited to 20 hours and only 51 votes are needed for final passage as the budget is immune to filibusters. But there is no limit on amendments and if Republicans file hundreds of them the Senate Parliamentarian could need months to rule on them all. Democratic leaders could, after a few days of amendments, say that Republicans are trying to filibuster by amendment and given that filibusters are not allowed in reconciliation, they could rule all other amendments “dilatory” and move to final passage. Republicans, including Lindsey Graham and Jon Kyl, have plead with Democrats not to employ this highly unusual tactic saying it could have dire effects on the Senate as an institution and on other pending legislation. “It’s just one of those things that you don’t do,” Kyl, the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters today. “You can imagine what would happen if irresponsible presiding officers exercised that power.Iit can always come back to bite you when you’re in the opposite situation, so as a general rule it has not been done.”

Another problem? Neither of these hip-busting dance moves would solve the problem of abortion. Reconciliation can only be used for “germane” fixes to the budget, of which abortion is not. A third bill may have to be passed through both chambers to solve this conundrum, thus complicating the potential self-executing rule and negotiations with the Senate where there aren’t 60 votes for the Stupak amendment.

Given all the complex and rarely used machinations, some Dems worry it’ll be hard to argue that they aren’t “ramming through” health care reform especially if they are forced to use both tactics. On the other hand, the longer this process takes, the less likely they’ll pass a bill as elections are rapidly approaching and just about everyone is sick of dealing with health care after more than a year of negotiations. Vulnerable members are anxious to get health care off the table and get back to talking about job creation. So, for the sake of expediency, in this final push Dems may have to sacrifice all bipartisanship not just on health care but on other agenda items.