Even With The Public Option Gone, Passing Health Care Reform Won’t Be Easy

December 16, 2009 4:32 a.m.

The public option is dead. Its successors are dead. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) told Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) as much yesterday afternoon. And yet still, there’s lingering uncertainty about whether a). the votes are there to pass a health care bill, or, relatedly, b). the bill can pass by Christmas. Here’s what would have to happen in the next 9 days to get that done.

Align the liberals and centrists

Reid’s first order of business is to make sure that there are 60 votes committed to pulling this bill past a filibuster (actually, several filibusters, but we’ll get to that). On the left flank of his party are three particularly disappointed Democrats: Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Roland Burris (D-IL), and Russ Feingold (D-WI).Sanders has described the direction this legislation has taken as “disturbing.” Feingold told The Hill last night, “I certainly think a stronger bill would be better in every respect, better policy…but there are obviously some good things in the bill.” Burris has said he will can’t support a bill that does not achieve “the goals of a public option,” leaving him substantial wiggle room.

Even assuming all three decide to vote with the Democrats on procedural matters, on the other side of the party, pro-life Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) announced, “I’m not on the bill,” before a meeting at the White House yesterday. He’s still holding out to see what abortion language Reid ultimately decides to adopt in his “manager’s amendment” to replace the abortion language in the current bill. Reid is working on that language with Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), and we should know soon what Nelson will do.

If Reid loses a single one of these members, he’ll need Snowe. And she’s not ready yet.

Push through the final stretch

There’s a saying in politics that goes something like: When you don’t have the votes, talk. When you do have the votes, vote. Assuming Reid gets the votes, he’ll vote. And vote. And vote. And vote. Reid will have to hold a veritable vote marathon to wrap up work on this bill–a process that could take nearly a week in and of itself. That’s why he wants to start Friday.

Because Democrats don’t expect Republicans to roll over and let the bill pass quickly, even after Reid rounds up his votes, he will have to file for cloture on three items–a manager’s amendment, the substitute amendment, and the underlying bill–simultaneously. For a primer on what each of these items is, see here. Republicans will likely filibuster all of them. It will take a full day for each of those cloture motions to “ripen” during which not much will happen.

After that, Reid will hold a cloture vote on the manager’s amendment. If 60 members vote yes, the Senate waits up to 30 hours before holding an up or down vote on the manager’s amendment. This process will repeat itself two more times–one for the substitute, and one for the underlying bill. If the Republicans don’t agree to cede back some time, that could potentially eat up 90 hours. And only then can Reid finally hold an up or down vote on “health care reform.”

In other words, Democrats were serious. They’re willing to work right up to Christmas to pass this bill.

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