President Barack Obama repeatedly tried to get the bipartisan summit on health care reform to focus on policy rather than process. Now that the summit is over, however, process is rightfully back on the table.
As I noted in my previous post, many of the major health care reforms of the past few decades have been accomplished through use of the reconciliation process. But how exactly would it be used this time for this reform?
Let’s review where reconciliation fits into the wonderful whacky world of the U.S. Senate. As you’ll recall, 41 Senators can invoke a filibuster and consequently prevent a bill from coming to the floor. Only if 60 of their colleagues vote to close debate (by invoking cloture) can a bill be voted upon by the full Senate. (For an interesting history of the filibuster and cloture, check out the Senate’s web site). There is an exception, however. Since 1974, budget and tax related items can be brought to the floor of the Senate through a process known as “reconciliation” and no filibuster can stop it. So a key issue is, what matters are eligible for the reconciliation process?
Enter Senator Robert Byrd the widely acknowledged master parliamentarian of the U.S. Senate. He created what is known as the Byrd rule to help determine what is outside the reconciliation process. Put simply, the Byrd rule defines as “extraneous matter” items that do not impact government outlays or revenue in a substantive way. (It’s more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it).
New taxes, and the health care reform process has plenty of them, are clearly within the purview of the reconciliation process. Preventing carriers from excluding pre-existing medical conditions from coverage is not.
What this means is that the Senate can not pass comprehensive health care reform through the reconciliation process. But hang with me here, because the fact is they don’t need to pass comprehensive health care reform through the reconciliation process because they already have. Remember? It was only a few weeks ago, on December 24th, 2009 to be precise. The Senate passed a comprehensive health care reform bill on a party-line 60-to-39 vote. yes, I know. It seems like ages ago, but it has only been a couple of months. And that affirmative act still stands.
So here’s the legislative three-step Democrats are likely to use to pass comprehensive health care reform.
Step One: The House votes on and passes the Senate version of health care reform.
Step Two: The Senate, using the reconciliation process, passes legislation to “fix” certain aspects of the health care reform it passed in the Senate.
Step Three: The House passes the Senate’s ‘clean-up” bill.
Both the Senate health insurance legislation and the clean-up bill arrive on the president’s desk. He signs them both into law.
What you may (and should) ask, would be in the clean-up bill? As previously predicted here, the follow-up bill is expected to remove state-specific funding elements such as the special treatment currently in the Senate bill favoring Nebraska, Louisiana and a few other states. The clean-up is also likely to change the criteria of a “Cadillac health plan” subjecting fewer policies from being subject to the proposed excise tax. Other fees and taxes would also likely be a part of the second bill. In other words, the clean-up bill would only relate to the budget and/or taxes, meeting the test of the Byrd rule.
I haven’t come up with this on my own. This legislative dance to enact health care reform was discussed at length on “Hardball with Chris Matthews” on MSNBC (the relevant discussion starts at about 3 minutes, 10 seconds in this clip, although he refers to it as a two-step process). What’s significant, however, is that it’s a strategy that makes sense (if your goal is to pass health care reform). Republicans will object that it’s ramming health care through Congress, but the GOP can’t claim the three-step violates Senate rules.
Many thought President Obama’s health care reform bill died with the election of Scott Brown to the Senate from Massachusetts on January 19, 2010. The odds are: they were wrong.