Can't Congressional Dems do anything right?

Another failed attempt at messaging leads to trouble with process for passing healthcare reform

Published March 17, 2010 2:55PM (EDT)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi "might attempt to pass [the Senate's healthcare reform bill] without having members vote on it," the Washington Post reported Tuesday. The same day, The Hill noted, "Majority Leader Steny Hoyer on Tuesday defended a tactic that would allow the House to 'deem' the Senate healthcare bill passed without actually voting on the bill." And CNN's Jack Cafferty opined, "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi may try to pass the controversial health care reform bill without making members vote on it. Unbelievable."

These descriptions weren't really inaccurate, but they were certainly misleading. They gave entirely too much credit to the way Republicans have framed the healthcare debate generally and this issue specifically -- Democrats are forcing the bill down Americans' throats, and doing it undemocratically -- and obscured the truth.

If they end up using the procedure that was discussed in all these examples, what House Democrats would actually be doing is using what's called a "self-executing rule." The full House would have to approve this rule, which would specify that if the House passes the planned fixes to the Senate's healthcare bill, then the underlying Senate bill would be deemed to have passed as well. (It could also be that the vote on the rule would be considered the vote on the fixes and the original Senate bill as well. See Mike Madden's earlier explanation for more.)

So it's not really true that there won't be a vote on the Senate healthcare bill -- a yes vote on the fixes, or on the self-executing rule, will end up being the same thing as a yes vote on the Senate's legislation. The House does this sort of thing all the time.

And yet reporters have been doing a very shoddy job of explaining these things. Obviously, that is at least in part on those reporters and their editors. But it's also on Congressional Democrats, who've been doing a very poor job of explaining this and spinning it away. This could have been a winner for them; instead, they're on their heels yet again. The frame has already been set, by the Republicans, and now the Democrats are playing defense, trying to fight back against a narrative that's already been set.

Democrats are likely, now, to step up their efforts to defend the use of the self-executing rule. They're going to try to explain it better, too. But it may be too little, too late.

"We need to talk about this as a vote on a whole package, and we should have been doing that earlier," one Democratic strategist conceded to Salon. This strategist, who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak freely, did say, though, "The press corps has also played a hand in giving Republicans a pass in this notion that there won't be a vote, there's been some negligence there."

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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