Lawmakers on both sides of Capitol Hill have wondered for months if the Senate could ignore usual Senate procedure and bypass a threatened filibuster just to approve health care reform.
Most of this chatter has just been speculation. But if anyone had any doubts that Congressional leaders might try and end-run around Senate tradition, all they needed to do was watch an otherwise innocuous meeting of of the House Ways and Means Committee Thursday morning.
The Ways and Means Committee built the bus that some Democrats believe could be used to shuttle the health care reform bill across the finish line. In essence, the committee structured and “packaged” the health care reform bill in such a manner that it would allow the Senate to exploit a budgetary loophole to skirt a filibuster threat.
Lawmakers can filibuster almost anything in the Senate. But senators can cut off a filibuster if they can round up 60 votes. Thus, 60 votes is what’s really needed to approve a health care reform package.
But if the Senate falls short of that mark, lawmakers could tuck the health care reform measure into the annual budget reconciliation process that Congress wrestles with each year. Reconciliation synchs up the U.S. tax code and the revenues the government brings in. And reconciliation measures are given special protections under the Congressional Budget Act of 1974. No filibusters are permitted and a simple majority is necessary to approve such bills.
Republicans know they can’t halt a determined majority in the House on health care. But they can gum up the works in the Senate where a host of moderate, Democratic senators remain skeptical of the health care reform bills crafted by the Senate leadership. However, structuring the bill in such a way that allows it to be scooped up in the reconciliation process could torpedo the GOP’s Senate trump card.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the top Republican on the House Budget Committee and a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee painted a grim parliamentary picture for GOP efforts to halt health care reform.
“The secret of the week is that Democrats pulled the trigger on the nuclear option,” Ryan said. “They built their vehicle today.”
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-NY) said that the committee’s maneuver “is strictly procedural.” But he noted that the “action was necessary because there is a possibility that a handful of Senate Republicans could choose to engage in partisan tactics to stall this important health reform bill.”
Rangel added that this move was to “simply preserve the option of advancing health reform legislation.”
But Ryan believes the change in posture means that using reconciliation to pass health care reform could be a fait accompli.
“Why create the option if you don’t intend to use it,” he said. “And the fact that you created it enhances the chances that you will use it.”
Many Senate Democrats, including Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Byrd (D-WV) remain skeptical of using the budget reconciliation process to approve health care reform. Earlier this year, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) dismissed ideas of stuffing the health care bill into recompilation. But conceded that “it is more than theoretically possible.”
Three House committees approved health care reform bills in July. The Education and Labor Committee included a provision that would allow the Senate to consider its version under reconcilation rules.
House and Senate leaders hope to start debate on their respective health care reform bills later this month or in early November.