Prior to achieving final passage of President Obama’s controversial health care bill, Capitol Hill Democrats considered an unprecedented parliamentary procedure which would have enabled the House of Representatives to pass the Senate version of the reform package without ever voting on it.
According to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the procedure involved a rule change which essentially deemed the Senate bill as having passed if the House approved a smaller package of legislative changes to the measure.
“I want to ensure there is an expedited review process to have the Supreme Court look at this. It’s about as unconstitutional as anything I’ve ever seen,” Hatch told Health Care News.
Ultimately, in response to backlash from public concerns, the Democrat leadership determined this tactic was not necessary to achieve passage. The House voted to accept the Senate version of the bill by a 219-212 margin on March 21.
Forcing Automatic Passage
Before the House vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and other Democrat leaders met repeatedly with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in attempts to find a parliamentary solution which would allow the health care legislation to proceed without actually voting on the legislation.
“Much of this depends on how the parliamentarian rules, but I think it’s safe to assume they are proceeding having worked in concert with the parliamentarian,” Hatch said. “As I understand it, the House will not even vote on the Reid bill. They will instead just vote on the small reconciliation package and try to manipulate the rules so that bill would become law automatically once that package was forced through the Senate.”
According to Hatch’s staff, the chief proponent of this tactic was powerful House Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY), who sought a way to push the health care package through the House without a direct vote on the Senate proposal, which contains several aspects seen as politically dangerous to several Hill Democrats.
Limits of Reconciliation
“Nancy Pelosi cannot pass the bill through the House without reconciliation. They need to use reconciliation to buy off the unions and fix the abortion funding problem, among other things,” Hatch said.
Because of the limited ability of the House to amend the package, Pelosi had to rely on the White House to help achieve a majority vote. She cut a deal with a group of pro-life Democrats led by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), in the form of a promise of a presidential executive order reiterating opposition to taxpayer funded abortions.
Hatch said the Senate parliamentarian, who serves at the pleasure of the majority but is required to be nonpartisan, would likely find any abortion amendment in the reconciliation package to be “extraneous,” since reconciliation bills are required to be budgetary in nature.
Limits of Reconciliation
The version of the bill passed by the House still contains $500 billion in Medicare cuts, more than $500 billion in tax increases, and multiple backroom deals—including the so-called Cornhusker Kickback, Louisiana Purchase, and Florida Carveout—which must be corrected via reconciliation for House Democrats to have any political cover for their votes.
Under Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)’s leadership, however, all 41 Senate Republicans delivered a signed letter to Harry Reid on March 4 stating a commitment to oppose any use of the reconciliation method not tied to budgetary restrictions.
“No matter how you cut it, reconciliation has never been used to pass sweeping social reform which lacked overwhelming bipartisan support,” Hatch said. “Welfare reform had 74 votes, SCHIP had 85 votes, college tuition was around 78. We saw 12 Senate Democrats support the prescription drug benefit plan, and 13 Republicans supported the creation of Medicare. That’s not the situation today.”
Polls Supported Starting Over
According to McConnell’s staff, Democrats will follow the House’s lead and pursue the reconciliation strategy in the Senate, even as poll data from Rasmussen Reports released on March 10 found 55 percent of U.S. voters thought Congress should have rejected the current bill.
“This bill reshapes one-sixth of the economy, vastly expands the role of government, raises taxes and cuts Medicare to pay for it all,” McConnell said. “Americans want us to scrap the underlying bill altogether and start over with step-by-step reforms that target cost and expand access.”
“They cannot win by being straight up and honest about it, so they’re going to try to win at all costs and hope this issue will go away,” Hatch said. “But it’s not going to go away. The American people are up in arms about it. And they should be.”
According to a memo composed by the offices of the Senate and House Republican Whips, Sen. John Kyl (R-AZ) and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), and obtained by Health Care News, while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has insisted he intends to consider the reconciliation package in the Senate, that package will be subject to unlimited amendments, virtually ensuring it will be changed in some manner.
“If the majority leadership moves forward in that way, we will not only shut down the Senate, but I’m confident the American people will stand up with us. It will not be ‘behind them,’ it will stare them in the face every day if they play the rules like this to pass this bill,” Hatch said.
Benjamin Domenech ([email protected]) is managing editor of Health Care News.