The battle over health care is set to reignite this week as Congressional Democrats eye an Easter recess deadline for moving a final reform package to President Barack Obamas desk and Republicans once again endeavor to erect a bicameral blockade.
Democratic leaders appear close to an agreement on a reconciliation bill, which would act as a companion vehicle of adjustments to the $871 billion health care package that the Senate approved in December. This sidecar legislation, which House Democrats are demanding and is the linchpin of efforts to sidestep a Senate GOP filibuster and clear a final reform bill, also serves as the epicenter of the political fight set to consume Congress.
Democratic leaders expect to obtain a Congressional Budget Office analysis of their reconciliation package by weeks end, after which they would forward the legislation to the Senate Parliamentarian to ensure that it complies with the chambers strict rules for 51-vote bills. With Republicans staking their opposition on derailing this package and House Democrats hesitant to support the underlying Senate bill, Obamas goal of enacting health care reform this year still faces multiple tests.
I say this as a former House Member, any time you ask the House to swallow a Senate-passed bill, especially on something this broad, its a hard thing to ask anybody to do, and we are essentially asking the House to do that, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said. One of the challenges for us is to actually explain to people effectively whats in the Senate-passed bill.
House and Senate Democrats in mid-January were on the verge of reconciling the Senates health care bill with the $1.2 trillion House package approved before Thanksgiving. But the Jan. 19 election of Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) gave a united Senate Republican Conference the extra seat that it needed to sustain a filibuster, ending the Democrats ability to clear a reconciled bill under regular order.
To sidestep this filibuster and sign a final, comprehensive health care bill into law, Obama and Democratic leaders have turned to a rarely used and sometimes controversial procedure known as reconciliation. This Senate tool is designed for budget-related bills and prohibits filibusters, allowing legislation to clear the Senate with only 51 votes instead of facing the usual 60-vote threshold.
The narrow rules governing what policies can be included in a reconciliation bill have created challenges as Democratic leaders attempt to form a bill that passes muster with the Senate Parliamentarian, withstands Republican attempts to defeat it and satisfies Democrats in both chambers. The Democrats strategy requires the House to act first and in fact House Democrats want an ironclad guarantee that Senate Democrats will fulfill their end of the deal.
A senior Democratic Senate aide conceded the difficulties that await the majority if and when a reconciliation bill drops in that chamber, although this individual expressed confidence that Republican obstruction tactics could be overcome. The issue of providing House Democrats with the assurances that they seek also remains outstanding, this aide said.