Here is an update on the process for merging the Senate HELP and Senate Finance committee health care bills.
First, as I reported yesterday, the key Senators in the process--Tom Harkin (Chair of HELP), Max Baucus (Chair of Finance), Harry Reid (Majority Leader)--will confer with each other and the White house to decide what sort of bill to send to the Senate floor. This bill will likely be something in between the Senate HELP and Senate Finance committee bills. It may or may not contain a public option, depending on what those four decide.
After they decide on what sort of bill goes to the floor, the blogosphere's resident Congressional procedure expert, David Waldman (Kagro X), described to me over email what happens next:
Bills usually come to the floor by unanimous consent. Lately, that hasn't been easy, and there's no reason to believe it will be with this one.
If you can't get unanimous consent, you can make a motion to proceed to consideration of a bill, but like many things, the motion to proceed is subject to the filibuster. So you could potentially need 60 votes to win cloture on a motion to proceed to consideration of the bill.(...)
[A] number of bills have cloture votes on motions to proceed and then again on final passage.
Also possible, of course, is an unanimous consent agreement that allows the bill to come to the floor, but which requires 60 votes for certain amendments (or even all amendments) to succeed, and the same for passage of the bill. The "painless filibuster."
So, the health care bill might have to clear three cloture votes--one to be taken under consideration in the first place, one before the Senate votes on the bill, and then one after the conference committee. (Now, the bill doesn't actually have to ever pass sixty votes, because of the nuclear option. However, Democrats conceded that procedural ground to Republicans long ago and won't challenge it for this fight.) Because any individual Senator can deny unanimous consent, whether there are two or three cloture votes will depend on what strategic decision Republicans make:
Hard to say what will happen for sure, but at least it is good to know the process.
- Do they demand Democrats produce 60 votes for cloture on the bill right away by denying unanimous consent? This could decide the outcome of the fight right away, demonstrating that there are 60 votes for the bill.
- Do they bide their time and try to kill or weaken the bill via filibuster amendment? They adopted this approach for the stimulus.
Update: David Waldman has a new post with a more detailed description of the process.