By John Sawyer
Changing leaves, the smell of crackling fires. College football, breaking out the scarf for the first time since last winter. There are certain rituals that come along every fall, especially as the holiday season approaches. Here in Washington, we’re engaged in another annual ritual: speculation on how long it will take the U.S. Senate to finish the job they were sent here to do, and how much business they can cram into their last few weeks. This year, it’s all about the health reform debate.
This isn’t a criticism of individual Senators, or the Senate leadership, the minority, or the majority – it’s more a “fact of life” when it comes to dealing with what’s been called “the world’s greatest deliberative body”. Emphasis on deliberative. Because of Senate rules, individual Senators can speak for as long as they’d like about whatever they’d like whenever they’d like. Because of the potential for such “filibusters”, passing major legislation requires 60 votes at several stages in the process to continue.
The odd part is, now that Democrats (and the two independents aligned with them) make up those 60 votes, getting them all in line and voting yes together is extraordinarily tough. Majority Leader Harry Reid has no margin of error – he can’t lose one vote. Until a bill is rolled out, Reid’s job has basically been whittled down to “ultimatum prevention”, since it is those statements that begin with “I won’t vote for any bill that…” that are his biggest setbacks at this point.
Take the abortion debate that arose in the House health reform bill’s consideration two weeks ago. In the aftermath of the successful passage of the Stupak Amendment, which restricts coverage for abortion, Senators have said they won’t vote for any bill that doesn’t contain those restrictions, and others have said they won’t vote for any bill that does. Same thing for the public option: lines have been drawn in the sand on both sides, and to get to 60, someone will have to “cave”. Typically that’s the person who cares more about the eventual passage of something.
In the case of health reform, here’s where we are: Senator Reid had hoped to bring a bill to the floor to begin debate this week. But, he’s still waiting on a “score” (cost estimate) from the Congressional Budget Office. Since a bill needs to be public for 72 hours before voting on a “motion to proceed” (essentially a vote to start debating, which also requires 60 votes), that means debate won’t start until next week at the earliest. It’s projected to take 3-4 weeks of floor debate to finish, and at that point, you need another 60 to force an end to debate. If you can get your 60 there, you technically only need 51 votes to pass the bill – but, for better or for worse, everyone treats the procedural votes like they are the actual vote.
Bottom line is we’re running out of legislative days in 2009 to get this done. One of the more common things we hear up on Capitol Hill is “it’ll be done by the State of the Union”, which will happen in late January. With plenty of other business to attend to, including next year’s appropriations, Afghanistan policy, energy, etc., a punt until next year seems likely. Then again, politically it makes more sense to show you can get something done.
As we do every year here in Washington, we’ll be watching. With the future of our health care system at stake, you should too.