Health vote in House: Road from bill to law could be full of procedural twists and turns

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks about healthcare reform at her weekly news conference on March 4.
REUTERS/Jose Luis Magana
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks about health-care reform at her weekly news conference on March 4.

WASHINGTON — Sometimes the path of legislation in Congress hews closely to that “I’m Just a Bill” song from “Schoolhouse Rock.” Idea, introduction, committee, House vote, send to the Senate, start again, pass there too, presidential signature and done.

This is not one of those times.

House leaders hope to hold their last votes on a sweeping health care reform package as early as Saturday using a complex parliamentary maneuver that would allow representatives to “deem” the Senate’s health care bill passed without a stand-alone vote on the measure. When sent to the Senate, the reconciliation package will also allow Democrats to dodge any potential filibuster, allowing President Obama to finally sign health reform into law by Easter. And oh, by the way, if all goes right for the majority they’ll approve the biggest student loan legislation in almost 20 years with the same stroke of his pen.

Democrats don’t currently have the votes, top officials say, but they’re confident they will by week’s end. Minnesota’s delegation looks like it will continue to split evenly on an eventual vote, just like it did when the House passed its health care bill late last year.

Rep. Jim Oberstar is now “leaning yes,” said spokesman John Schadl, adding that Oberstar wants to vote for health reform but still has concerns over abortion language and Medicare reimbursement rates. Reports that he’s a solid yes are inaccurate, Schadl said, because Oberstar won’t commit his vote before looking at the legislative language.

Rep. Tim Walz is also leaning yes, said spokeswoman Sara Severs, who added that he too wanted to see the bill text before committing. Reps. Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum have both said they’ll vote yes.

“There have been enough delays in the health care reform process,” McCollum said. “The American people deserve a simple up or down vote from Congress. I will be a vote for health care reform, and I urge my House colleagues to join me in fixing our nation’s health care system.”

Blue Dog Democrat Collin Peterson and all three Republicans — John Kline, Michele Bachmann and Erik Paulsen — have confirmed that they plan to vote against the bill.

“It’s a flip of the coin, I think no one knows which way it’s going to go,” Bachmann told ABC News late Tuesday.

Minnesota’s House: How they will vote on health care

How Minnesota’s U.S. House members plan to vote on the Senate health care bill, as long as it was followed by a “fix” bill as outlined by President Obama.

Rep. Party Vote on House health care bill Planned vote on Senate bill (with a “fix” to follow) Comments
D Yes Leaning Yes Wants to see the final language before committing
R No No Called for Dems to “start over” on health care
R No No Like Kline, wants a “fresh start” on health care
D Yes Yes Wants Medicare funding formula to more emphasize quality
D Yes Yes Also wants Senate to include a public option
R No No One of the most vocal opponents of  “Obamacare”
D No No Leading Blue Dog Dem will oppose Senate plan
D Yes Leaning Yes Has concerns about abortion and Medicare rates

All along, the plan had been to pass health reform without using reconciliation, but when they lost the Massachusetts Senate seat held earlier this session by Ted Kennedy to a Republican — and with it their 60-vote supermajority — Democrats lost the ability to overcome an inevitable Republican filibuster attempt.

Hence reconciliation, a frequently used annual budget procedure originally intended to balance the budget while dodging the filibuster has also become a convenient vehicle to carry some major legislation. According to the St. Petersburg Times’ Pulitzer-winning PolitiFact fact checkers, reconciliation has carried “health insurance portability (COBRA), nursing home standards, expanded Medicaid eligibility, increases in the earned income tax credit, welfare reform, start-up of the state Children’s Health Insurance Program, major tax cuts and student aid reform.”

Reconciliation can be used once per budget year “when Congress issues directives to legislate policy changes in mandatory spending (entitlements) or revenue programs (tax laws) to achieve the goals in spending and revenue contemplated by the budget resolution.” That language is direct from a House Rules Committee memo on the procedure, which is worth reading in its entirety.

The process officially kicked off at a Monday afternoon House Budget Committee hearing, where members held a series of votes on amendments intended to put the other side on the record either for or against them. McCollum offered one such motion on eliminating lifetime coverage caps — it passed on a 25-11 vote.

“We can put patients first, and no longer let insurance companies to continue to profit as families are forced to go without care or go bankrupt trying to get the care they need to stay alive,” McCollum said

Today, the Rules Committee will work up the procedures governing how the House will consider it. Since nothing would ever get done if every House member got to offer all the amendment and debate for as long as they wanted, the Rules Committee has the power to decide how many amendments are considered, which amendments, how long debate is and who controls how much of it.

Critically, in this case, they can also attach rules about voting.

“We have… several options available to us,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. “And we we’ve asked the Parliamentarian and the Rules Committee tell us what our options are and they’ve given us some.”

The ‘Slaughter Solution’
Sometime between now and Friday, the text of the legislation should be made public, along with new cost estimates from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The legislation is expected to be a little more than 100 pages, White House officials said, and House leaders have committed to giving at least 72 hours from the time it’s posted online until the vote.

Under that timeline, a bill released today could be voted on as early as Saturday. Obama has said he wants a bill passed before he leaves Sunday for a trip to Indonesia and Australia — a trip that he’s already delayed once over the ever-lengthening health reform process.

“I’ve told the members that until we see the substance from the CBO, we won’t make a determination about how we go forward, but we want to know what our options are,” Pelosi said.

The most-commonly cited option among those Pelosi is said to be considering is a deem-and-pass strategy, dubbed the “Slaughter Solution” by Republicans in general and the “Slaughter the House” rule by Bachmann in particular. It’s named for Louise Slaughter of New York, the Rules chairwoman, who has advocated its use.

Essentially, the House would vote on health care reform in one big package, directly approving the “fix” language to the Senate’s health care bill outlined by Obama while “deeming” the Senate’s already-passed bill to be approved. It’s a way to avoid having Democrats vote directly on the unsavory aspects of the Senate’s bill that would be removed by the fix, so no one has to specifically approve things like a federally funded expansion of Medicaid to only Nebraska that was key to getting Sen. Ben Nelson’s vote in December, a rider now commonly known as the “Cornhusker Kickback.”

Just the suggestion of the move has incensed Republicans.

“Using procedural tricks to avoid taking a real vote is yet another example of why the American people are so frustrated with Washington,” Paulsen said. “This tactic is simply a way to ignore the will of the American people and eliminate accountability. If the bill was good policy, this wouldn’t be needed.”

Kline, in a press conference yesterday, called it a “convoluted parliamentary procedure to make sure that their members don’t have to vote on the Senate bill and to work a way to get this government takeover of the student loan industry put in at the same time.”

House Republican Leader John Boehner said his caucus plans to force a vote on a resolution requiring an up-or-down vote on the Senate’s bill separate from the reconciliation language.

“The ‘Slaughter Solution’ is the ultimate in Washington power grabs, a legislative ploy that lets Democrats defy the will of the American people while attempting to eliminate any trace of actually doing so,” Boehner said. “It shows you just how controversial this government takeover of health care has become that it takes a controversial maneuver just to vote on it.”

Self-executing rules, as they’re officially known, are not exactly uncommon.

Don Wolfensberger, a Republican former staff director for the Rules Committee, noted as much in 2006 when he chided his own party for using them frequently after having derided them while in the minority.

However, Republicans charge that they’ve never been used for a piece of legislation of this scope. Furthermore, they say, if Democrats had a better bill, they wouldn’t need to resort to procedural “tricks” in order to pass it.

Derek Wallbank is MinnPost’s Washington, D.C., correspondent and can be reached at wallbank[at]minnpost[dot]com.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/17/2010 - 11:11 am.

    First they’re going to use “reconciliation” to cut the GOP out of the process…oops, won’t work ’cause too many Democrats smell a rat.

    No problem.

    We’ll use the “Slaughter rule” to cut the process out of the process…yeah, that’s the ticket!

    Seriously, is the Democrat party *that* out of touch with America? Is Obama *that* determined to hang on to power?

    Yes, the GOP pulled this stunt too, but the Democrats have gone it one worse. The SCOTUS upheld the GOP “deem and pass” to increase the debt ceiling (something that makes this conservative steam), because the language in both Senate and House bills was identical.

    Now Pelosi & Co. propose to pass a bag full of amendments…and *then* claim the bill they amended is the same as the one they “deem passed”.

    They’ve lost their minds!

    Look. The lefties have dug themselves a hole they cannot dig out of; yeah, they’ve beaten their own record for cratering this time, but it’s nothing new.

    If they put the stinking pile of crud they are calling “health care reform” into the commode, they will pay at the polls next year, and the Pres. will be the longest serving lame duck since Carter. But they will rise from the ashes to dance the mummer’s parade in DC again.

    If they proceed to strike a match to the Constitution, by using the perfectly named “self executing” rule, trust me, the American people are going to take that and run with it.

  2. Submitted by Howard Salute on 03/17/2010 - 11:59 am.

    Speaker Polosi’s picture seems to indicate how much of the “self executing” rule she is willing to take. Keep smiling Nancy.

  3. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 03/17/2010 - 02:23 pm.

    The Republicans used this “twisted scheme” (deem and pass) over 100 times when they were in power.

    Cut the shrill (B.S.).

    Pass the Bill.

    If the public hates it as much as the Rebs. with all their hysterical screaming are trying to tell them thy should, they’ll vote the dems out of office and the rebs can rescind the whole thing.

    THAT’s Democracy!

  4. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 03/17/2010 - 08:32 pm.

    Is it a “dirty trick” to intentionally walk a batter in baseball? To use a lateral pass in football? To intentionally foul someone in basketball?

    Of course not. The rules permit these activities, thus they are legal within the context of the game in which they’re played. It would violate the spirit of the rules if they were used constantly and exclusively, but they are allowed.

    Similarly, the Senate sets up rules and the participants play by them. End of story.

    Look at the filibuster itself. Presumably it’s not Holy Writ since the founding fathers didn’t see fit to put it in the Constitution. Yet Republicans have decided to use it on essentially every bit of legislation, forcing every vote to be a super-majority. Dirty trick? Nope. The rules allow it.

    Now the Democrats have gotten their fill of rules used out of the spirit in which they were enacted and decided to fight fire with fire, in this case Reconciliation. Dirty trick? Nope. The rules allow it.

    Ultimately, it would be nice to see both sides abiding by both the spirit and the letter of the rules, but if one side decides to push things beyond their intended usage, what surprise is it if the other side decides to respond in kind? It’s hardly the kind of thing one can become morally outraged about, given that it is a response to essentially the same behavior. Pot meet kettle.

    Although it’s politics and not physics, I think Newton got this one right with his third law…

  5. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 03/17/2010 - 09:16 pm.

    I love that bi-partisan opposition.

  6. Submitted by Clare LaFond on 03/17/2010 - 11:40 pm.

    Well said, Mr. Schulze.

Leave a Reply