Here are four procedural dead-ends on health care reform:
This means that the only viable way to get a public option in health care reform legislation will be for a public option to be included by the Budget committee when they merge the HELP committee and Finance Committee bills. The conference committee would be a longshot backup plan, but really the Budget committee is the procedural path to a public option right now.
- No public option from the Finance Committee. The Finance Committee will vote tomorrow on the public option. As I wrote on Friday, and as The Hill reiterates today, none of the amendments will pass. A public option will not by part of the health care bill passed by the Finance Committee.
- Nothing will pass the Senate with 51 votes. While virtually anything can pass the Senate with only 51 votes, nothing in health care reform legislation will actually pass the Senate with only 51 votes. The reason for this is two-fold.
First, Senate Democrats are not going to use the nuclear option. They just aren't. That is too bold a move for such a cautious group-not to mention one that is so focused on a public image of bipartisanship.
Second, for many of the same reasons, Senate Democrats are not going to use reconciliation. If they attempt to do so, either in the Budget committee that is merging the HELP and Finance committee bills or by splitting the bill in conference, Senate Republicans will propose points of order requiring 60 votes to pass reconciliation. Since Senate Democrats have already ceded this procedural territory through their unwillingness to use the nuclear option, they will need 60 votes to pass anything. As such, they might as well just target 60 votes for cloture.
Until Senate Democrats are willing to use the nuclear option, they will need 60 votes to pass anything. That is a battle we are going to engage here on Open Left, but it isn't a battle that can be won during the short time frame of health care reform.
- No good strengthening amendments will pass on the Senate floor. If there is no public option in the bill that passes through Kent Conrad's Budget committee, don't expect one to emerge from the Senate via amendments. The 60-vote culture will be in effect for all amendments to the health care bill when it arrives on the Senate floor, and so there won't be enough votes for the public option--or any other significant strengthening amendment-if it is not included in the bill that comes out of the Budget committee.
- Don't expect much strengthening from the conference committee. Due to the 60-vote culture of the Senate-a culture that seems locked in for health care-there will inevitably be a narrow vote margin for the bill coming out of the Senate. As such, even if there is a public option in the House version of health care reform (highly likely), don't expect it to survive the conference committee if the Senate does not include one. Sure, the House might get a couple of small concessions to improve the Senate bill in conference, but mainly the Senate bill will survive and conference committee compromise.
The narrow Senate vote margin, combined with the Obama administration's rabid desire for a health care bill, will provide the Senate version of the bill with more leverage in the conference committee. We already saw this play out on the stimulus package, where the narrow Senate margin allowed its version of the stimulus to largely stay intact during the conference committee. The House was only able to win the conference committee on the federal budget because of the wider margin in the Senate.
Now, the Budget committee, like the Rules Committee in the House (which merges bills in that chamber), has an ostensibly independent committee chair. However, the reality is that each of these committees is really an extension of the overall majority leadership in each chamber. Just as Rep. Louise Slaughter (House Rules Committee chair) isn't going to break with Pelosi in the House, Senator Kent Conrad (Senate Budget Committee chair) will not go against Senator Reid. This is actually a good thing for public option advocates, since if it was all up to Kent Conrad, the public option would be dead already. At least with Reid, there is a chance.
So really, this all comes down to whether Harry Reid wants to include a public option in the merged Finance and HELP committee bills. Or, perhaps to put it a different way, whether Reid feels more pressure to put a public option. The pressure he will receive, in both directions, from his fellow Senators, from the Obama administration, from industry lobbyists, and from grassroots organizations will be intense. If we are going to win this fight, we need to make certain that Senator Reid feels as though he has no other choice but to include a public option in the merged Finance and HELP committee bills. At this point, we don't really have any other option.