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After tomorrow’s Senate vote, what next?

December 24th, 2009, 01:12 am admin Leave a comment Go to comments

Rumors are flying today about the possibility that the health insurance reform bill might not be finalized in time for the State of the Union address, traditionally timed for late January or early February.

I first got wind of it from the Political Wire, when Taegan Goddard passed on a Politico piece saying, “January’s tight legislative calendar means it’s unlikely health reform will get to the president’s desk before the State of the Union address (likely Jan. 26, maybe Feb. 2 –West Wing hasn’t settled on date).”

What’s the problem?

Well, most eyes are on the break the Congress is taking at the end of the year. There’s nothing unusual about it, it’s something they traditionally do heading into the second session of a Congress. The mid-January dates for reconvening (the 12th for the House, the 18th for the Senate) are entirely routine. The wild card here is the health insurance reform bill, which has, of course, been pending for some time, and people are anxious to see completed — and particularly that it be completed in time for President Obama to be able to address it as a done deal in the State of the Union speech.

Though the House comes back on the 12th, the current plan is for them to recess again almost immediately and head out of town for a Democratic Issues Conference on the 14th & 15th. Republicans want to do the same on the 28th through the 30th.

In addition to the mid-January restart, there’s also the issue of getting a CBO score on the final version of the bill, which the articles flying around the web say could take as long as 10 days.

Still, I’m not so sure that this fouls the plans for the State of the Union deadline (though we all know this bill hasn’t made any of its previous — and equally artificial — deadlines along the way). All indications are that the Senate will have a fairly narrow tolerance for House changes to its bill, and that the House is feeling enough of that pressure that they’re likely to accede to the vast majority of the Senate’s demands. Leaving aside for the moment the propriety of such an accommodation and the long-term institutional issues it raises, there’s every chance that the House will move speedily to either accept the Senate bill as is or offer up only minor changes.

But the ball is in the House’s court beginning tomorrow morning after the Senate’s vote on final passage of H.R. 3590. It’ll be up to the House to decide what to do, and what they decide will have a big impact on how quickly the Senate can move to meet them.

Because the Senate will be sending back a different legislative vehicle than the House sent to them (the Senate will be sending back H.R. 3590 rather than the House-passed H.R. 3692), the House will have the opportunity to choose from among the following options:

  1. Agree to the Senate amendments to H.R. 3590, in which case they’re done and the bill is ready for signature;
  1. Further amend H.R. 3590 (as amended by the Senate) and send it back to the Senate, with an insistence on its position and requesting a conference;
  1. Further amend H.R. 3590 (as amended by the Senate) and send it back to the Senate without further comment, letting the Senate decide to accept the House amendments and finish the bill, or alternatively insist on a conference;
  1. Simply disagree to the Senate amendments to H.R. 3590 and move immediately to go to conference on the two different versions of that bill, or;
  1. Do nothing right away on the floor, but instead begin informal negotiations on a package of amendments acceptable to both a majority in the House and 60 Senators.

Simply disagreeing with the Senate amendments to H.R. 3590 and immediately requesting a conference, creates some interesting issues, because in that case the House would be asking for a conference to resolve the differences between the Senate version of the health insurance reform bill that we’ve all been watching and the original House version of H.R. 3590, which was a completely different bill. (It was originally intended, “to modify the first-time homebuyers credit in the case of members of the Armed Forces and certain other Federal employees.”)

One of the more interesting effects of seeking a conference between these two entirely different concepts of H.R. 3590 is that it would by necessity give the conferees much wider latitude for making changes. Conferees are normally restricted to negotiating only matters where the two versions of the bill disagree. But in this case, every single provision is in disagreement, since the House version of H.R. 3590 isn’t even a health care bill.

But would that latitude really mean anything, given the demands of the Senate that little or nothing be changed, lest the 60-vote coalition fall apart? Probably not.

Another quick route to resolution, if the House is agreeable to bending but not simply accepting H.R. 3590 as is, would be for the time between now and the 12th to be spent in negotiations with the key players in the Senate and the White House, designing a package of amendments and testing them with the logjammers among the Senate’s coalition of 60 (formerly known as “the Senate Democratic Caucus”). If the House can put together a package of changes that hold water with a majority in their own body as well as with 60 Senators, then that’s something they can pass as an amendment to H.R. 3590 (as the Senate is expected to amend it tomorrow), and to which the Senate can then agree shortly after they return in January.

If they can pull that off — even if things slip back a few days between now and then — then there’s no need for a conference, and the bill can be ready for the White House in time for the State of the Union. And it should be noted that skipping a formal conference has the benefit of relieving the Senate from having to possibly seek cloture on several procedural motions that might otherwise require votes — like the motion to disagree to the House’s amendment, a motion to request a conference, and a motion to appoint conferees, all of which could find themselves subject to Republican filibusters, and the resultant waiting periods for cloture “ripening,” 30 post-cloture hours, etc.

All the signals appeared to be switching to green for a plan that would mostly see the House getting out of the way of the Senate’s runaway freight train, but one late breaking development could call that into question: the objection of House Rules Committee Chair (and close ally of Speaker Pelosi) Louise Slaughter (D-NY-28), who now says:

[A] conference report is unlikely to sufficiently bridge the gap between these two very different bills.

It’s time that we draw the line on this weak bill and ask the Senate to go back to the drawing board. The American people deserve at least that.

That could create a pretty significant shift in momentum. We’ll have to see if “private negotiations” change things in the next couple days — or even hours.

UPDATE: Discussion of the Slaughter op-ed ongoing in TomP’s diary.

UPDATE 2: And here’s the start of that walk-back. Elapsed time: 6 hours, 15 minutes:

* As many on the left have pointed out, Dem Rep  Louise Slaughter is now calling on Democrats to  kill the Senate bill.

* But a spokesperson for Slaughter, Vince Morris, confirms she’s not ruling out a vote for the final bill, even if it lacks a public option or other concessions sought by progressives.

“She’s not ruling anything in or out at this point,” Morris tells me. “She is hopeful that we can make the bill better in conference.”

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