How the Senate will tackle healthcare reform

The GOP could pull out all the stops to delay the reconciliation bill in the next few days

Published March 23, 2010 6:24PM (EDT)

The main healthcare reform bill may be law now, but the next few days could get a little hectic for the separate package of amendments to it that the Senate is trying to pass through the budget reconciliation process.

For anyone who hasn't already become way too familiar with the Senate rules for comfort during the last year of debate, here's a look at how it will all shake out. First, the good news: Democrats only need 51 votes to pass the bill -- it can't be filibustered, so the Senate will skip the usual show of lining up 60 votes for procedural motions before final passage. Debate on the bill will begin Tuesday. There are 20 hours of debate, 10 on each side. But that's Senate time, not real time; the clock only runs when someone has been yielded time to speak. Time spent considering procedural motions -- intended mostly to gum up the works -- or in "quorum calls," designed to make sure there are a sufficient number of lawmakers on the floor, doesn't count. So the debate may wind up being more like an NFL game, where 60 minutes on the clock somehow find a way to stretch to three times that long.

Whenever that 20 hours runs out, the rules allow for as many amendments as anyone cares to offer. The amendments can't be debated, but they do all need to be voted on. GOP aides and lawmakers are being cagey about exactly how many changes they might offer, or what they'll be. But Democrats expect a considerable amount of mischief. Labor unions notified their allies that they won't be counting votes on the amendments for their year-end rankings -- a sign that they expect Republicans to offer proposals that Democrats might vote for eagerly under different circumstances. "Our message to senators is, 'A no on amendments is a yes on healthcare,'" AFL-CIO spokesman Eddie Vale says.

Why would the GOP do that? Because if the reconciliation bill is changed at all, it has to go back to the House for yet another vote. Democrats in both chambers, as well as the White House, just want the whole thing to be behind them as soon as possible. Republicans, though, may find it hard to resist tempting their opponents with things like a public option, just to try to force the bill back to the House.

The other potential for trickery comes because of another hitch in the rules: The amendments don't have to be particularly relevant to the legislation. So Republicans could force Democrats to vote over and over on things that have nothing to do with healthcare -- but sound bad in a 30-second commercial this fall (something like, "Call Harry Reid, and ask him why he voted not to send child molesters to an underground dungeon," for example).

Whether the bill makes it through the Senate this week unchanged could come down to how firmly Democrats are willing to hold their ground -- which doesn't necessarily inspire a lot of confidence. "The Senate still has a last round of improvements to make on this historic legislation," President Obama said Tuesday morning as he signed the healthcare bill. "Yes!" House members in the room yelled out.

All those votes will come one after another in a marathon session known on Capitol Hill as a "vote-a-rama." Former Senate parliamentarian Robert Dove suggested last year that allowing debate on the amendments might actually mean fewer delays in the budget reconciliation process -- after all, if you had to argue for 30 minutes about why your time-wasting proposal should be adopted, you might not have offered it in the first place.

But there is one saving grace that probably means the Republicans will relent at some point. The Senate is supposed to leave town this weekend for a two-week recess back home. The GOP may hate this healthcare reform bill, but lawmakers in both parties love time off. Votes could go into the weekend, but by Monday, it should all be over. A socialist-inspired government takeover of healthcare may be bad, but a government takeover of a congressional "district work period"? Now that would be tyranny.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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