Senate Democrats on Monday are set to pick up the battle over health care reform where the House left off, but the path forward remains uncertain as Republicans comb the reconciliation package for weaknesses and Democrats hunker down in an attempt to preserve the integrity of the bill.
"It will be important that we stay together so we can keep the bill strong," Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said. "We won't want to erode the bill just because certain people from certain states might want to do something. So, we will to a certain extent have to work together on this."
Countered National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas): "We'll either bring down the whole bill, or we'll punch big holes in it."
Senate Democrats were still crafting their battle strategy over the weekend, but they said Sunday's House approval of the $875 billion Senate-passed bill and a companion reconciliation legislation would be the crucial setup for the Senate debate. The two packages combine for a 10-year cost of $940 billion, according to preliminary analysis by the Congressional Budget Office.
"Our plan is to ride the momentum of what we firmly believe will be a strong vote out of the House and use that to catapult us over what might be a bumpier road in the Senate, given all the parliamentary tools the other side has at its disposal," one senior Senate Democratic aide said.
A Democratic leadership aide said that much of the Conference's final battle plan will depend on the outcome of discussions with the Senate Parliamentarian, who will be the lead arbiter of procedural challenges to the reconciliation bill.
Senate Democratic leaders remain unclear as to how some of those procedural issues will be addressed, and the fight over those arcane rules began this weekend. First, Senate Democrats asked Republicans to vet their procedural objections with the Parliamentarian on Friday, but the GOP declined to do so, said one source.
Then on Sunday, Republicans accused the Democrats of refusing to meet with the Parliamentarian over the weekend to sort out whether a one provision in particular would cause problems for the bill. Republicans then sent out a press release that purported to warn House Democrats of a potential "fatal" flaw win the bill.
Democrats countered that Republicans were simply trying one last maneuver to introduce doubt in the minds of nervous House Democrats before the Sunday night vote.
"It's a cynical strategy, albeit a highly misleading one," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
During the week, Democrats said they expect to mainly be playing defense and trying to react to GOP attempts to amend the bill either by raising budget points of order or through amendments. "We're going to be flexible and be prepared to do what we need to do," the Democratic leadership aide said.
Arguably, the Republicans' best shot at gumming up the works is to find a budget point of order against the bill. And despite Senate Democrats' public assurances to House Democrats to the contrary, they privately are conceding that the GOP has a decent shot of finding something that will have to be axed from the bill.
If any provision violates the strict reconciliation rules that — among other things — require every provision to have a budgetary impact, it will be automatically stricken from the bill, unless there are 60 votes to retain it. There are only 59 Members of the Senate Democratic Conference.
All 41 Senate Republicans previously made clear in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that they have no intention of helping Democrats to retain any portions of the bill that are subject to points of order. Additionally, liberal Democrats may also want to offer amendments to the bill — including on adding a public insurance option.
But Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has said that Democrats would be asked to defeat any and all amendments, even ones they might support, in an effort to pass the bill, unchanged, and get it to the president's desk.
Late last week, rank-and-file Democrats said they were ready for the looming health care fight.
"I think if the Republicans are acting like they have for the last 14 months, then they're going to want to do whatever they can to delay," Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said. "And if that means voting all night, we should vote all night — and the next night and the next night, until they run out of energy."
As is their custom under Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), GOP Senators are holding key details of their strategy on reconciliation close to the vest.
Republican leaders last week revealed more than usual: laying out a coordinated plan to scare waffling House Democrats into voting on in that chamber by convincing them that even the smallest change to the bill in the Senate would require the legislation to be sent back to the House for another vote.
Senate Republican leaders and their staff spent the weekend scouring the reconciliation package for provisions that would be subject to a budget point of order or violate other strict reconciliation rules.
In fact, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) signaled late last week that Republicans would be relying primarily on budget points of order and amendments to try to derail reconciliation. There are no specific rules under reconciliation limiting amendments, but Democrats have said they may move to rule them as "dilatory" if they try to draw the process out for more than a few days.
"The reality is, the way that they're offered, without debate, makes it very unlikely that there would so many, that it would be considered dilatory," Kyl said. "The points-of-order issue is really important, because they expect to fix the bill with a process that really isn't going to end up fixing it."
However, Senate Republicans still plan to offer an unspecified number of amendments, hoping at the very least to force the Democrats to take votes that could haunt them in the November elections. One amendment the Republicans plan to offer addresses the proposed cuts to the Medicare Advantage program, which is popular among seniors and individuals who live in rural areas.
Republicans also plan to raise points of order against proposed changes in the "Cadillac" tax on expensive health insurance plans.
Senate Republicans announced Sunday afternoon, just hours before the House vote, that adjustments to the tax in the reconciliation bill violate a budget rule known as the Byrd rule on two counts: It affects Social Security and falls outside of the current budget window of 2010 to 2014. As of press time, the Parliamentarian had not ruled on the matter, but Democrats said last week they felt confident Republicans would not succeed.
But Senate Budget ranking member Judd Gregg (N.H.), the GOP point man on reconciliation, explained that the impact on Social Security violated rule 310-G of the Budget Act, which if the Senate Parliamentarian agrees would strip the entire bill of reconciliation protections that prevent a filibuster. Gregg indicated last week that Democrats and the Parliamentarian would have adequate advance notice of the GOP's plans.
"We've informed our colleagues in the House that we believe the bill they're now considering violates the clear language of Section 310-G of the Congressional Budget Act," McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said in a statement. "The entire reconciliation bill is subject to a point of order and rejection in the Senate."
Outside of the procedural battles, Republicans also plan to continue to attack the package over deals it includes to secure the votes of fence-sitting Democrats. A senior Republican Senate aide said the GOP would also attempt to tar the reconciliation process as illegitimate.
"While the Democrats' vote-buying strategy has set a new low for dirty politics, the high price tags of their deals have made Duke Cunningham's yacht look like a dingy," the senior Republican Senate aide said, referring to the former California GOP Representative who was convicted of bribery and went to jail.
Democrats, meanwhile, have been crafting a counter message strategy of their own — one intended to downplay the Senate GOP's tactics by pointing out that health care reform is already law and that the reconciliation bill is merely intended to make small improvements to it. When the House passed the reconciliation bill, it also cleared for the president's signature the larger, more comprehensive Senate-passed health care measure.
Senate Democrats have planned several media events for this week to talk up the benefits of the reconciliation bill. Those press conferences will likely deal with provisions in the package to close the Medicare prescription drug "doughnut hole" as well as increased health insurance subsidies to lower-income families, the leadership aide said.
The senior Senate Democratic aide said Democrats would also be relying on President Barack Obama to make the public argument for passage while Senators were tied up with the parliamentary process in the chamber.
"It's going to be a tough fight. But we're feeling better and better and better," Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said.