Health Center Federal Policy, Uncategorized

Process-ing the Senate: A Guide to the Debate Ahead

senateby Lupita Salazar Letscher

The Senate voted this weekend, in the first step of a long debate set to begin  in earnest after Thanksgiving.  This post will give you an idea of where we’re going in the Senate debate on health reform and how to understand things a little better along the way.

The Process. The basic process for a Senate to pass a bill is simple – introduce the bill, debate it, amend it on the floor, and pass it (or don’t).  In practice, however, and especially in health reform, this process could take weeks and a thousand amendments before anyone, including Democrats, are ready to vote up or down on anything.  Here’s an idea of what we can expect in the Senate debate of their version of a health reform bill – the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – with a handy glossary of terms (below):

  • START. The Senate vote this weekend on the motion to proceed to consideration of the health reform bill marked the official start of debate on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  This was one of at two votes to invoke cloture during this process and needed at least 60 YEA votes to avoid a filibuster and move forward on health reform.
  • MIDDLE. From the end of November thru December 23rd (when they are scheduled to adjourn), the Senate will be in session debating the health care reform bill.  Amendments may be offered at any time on the floor, new issues may surface at any moment, and points of order will be raised ad infinitum.  Each amendment that comes up will probably need a filibuster-proof 60 votes to pass.
  • END. The Senate will eventually need to end the debate and vote on whether to pass the bill as amended on the floor.  Unless all 100 Senators can all agree unanimously to end the debate, Senator Reid will need to hold another vote to invoke cloture, this time to close consideration of the bill – which will take, again, 60 votes.  If the votes aren’t there for cloture, the debate can’t end and the bill can’t move out of the Senate and into Conference Committee with the House.

The Vocabulary. You’re going to hear a lot of buzzwords thrown around on the news, if you haven’t already.  Here’s the ones we just used, in order of appearance:

  • Motion to proceed to consider is a motion, usually offered by the Majority Leader, to bring a bill up for consideration on the Senator floor.  Senators can debate this motion until enough of them (60) vote to close debate.
  • Cloture limits the time left for Senators to debate a motion and it’s the only process that will overcome a filibuster.  It takes 60 Senators to vote for cloture (or ‘to invoke cloture’) and it caps the time left for debate at an additional 30 hours.
  • Filibuster is any attempt by a Senator, or a group of Senators, to block or delay action on a bill.  Senate Republicans have threatened to filibuster health reform in the Senate by dragging out the debate, requiring a reading of the bill out loud on the floor, offering procedural motions (each of which takes their own vote), and/or offering an endless string of amendments.
  • Point of order is a claim made by a Senator that a rule of the Senate is being violated.  Senators may raise or reserve a point of order, which means that the Chair must stop debate on the floor, consider the point of order, and determine whether a Senate rule was broken.
  • Conference Committee (aka: Conference) is the process by which two different version of a bill are combined into one single piece of legislation.  Typically, the leadership staff on the committee’s of jurisdiction over the bill negotiate the conference bill.  So for health reform, some selection of leadership from the Senate HELP and Finance Committee and House Education & Labor, Energy & Commerce and Ways and Means Committees will work out the final health reform bill from Congress.  Once the Conference Committee has selected the best of both bills, the legislation will go back to the floor of both chambers for an up-or-down vote.  Once the bill comes out of conference, it cannot be amended.


  1. Thank you for outlining the Senate process. It is critically important that we understand the process and committees involved in making a decision about health care reform.

    I now understand exactly why I need to constantly educate my elected officials on the impact of not passing a health care reform bill.

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