Senate Dems Brace for 'Poison Pills'
Democratic Senate leaders are fiercely lobbying their rank and file to hold the line against GOP efforts to change the final piece of their yearlong push to overhaul the nation’s health care system.
Knowing that they need only 51 votes to push a reconciliation bill to final passage, Democratic leaders are telling their senators that each Republican amendment is a “poison pill” that would derail the process. The reconciliation bill is designed to fix the health care legislation that President Barack Obama will sign into law Tuesday.
But with little to lose at this point, Senate Republicans are planning an onslaught of politically sensitive amendments to a health care reconciliation bill, searching high and low for any way to derail the final legislation.
Republicans suffered a defeat on a key parliamentary ruling Monday night, but GOP aides say they’ve discovered drafting errors in the legislation that would force the Senate parliamentarian to rule in their favor — and send the reconciliation bill back to the House one more time.
Republicans will have plenty of opportunities to make life difficult, ranging from amendments to save Medicare Advantage from cuts to blocking taxes on the middle class.
Democrats are also urging fellow senators to withstand the temptation to offer amendments of their own, allowing the party to finalize the legislation this week and move on to jobs and financial reform.
Thus far, senior Democrats have had some success urging liberals to hold off on an amendment to establish a public insurance option.
But they’re bracing for other potential defections from their ranks. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington is one of a handful of Democrats who did not sign a letter last week to House Democrats committing to an up-or-down vote on the reconciliation bill “without delay.” A Cantwell aide signaled Monday that the senator has not ruled out offering amendments to the bill this week.
Some moderates, such as Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, who is in danger of losing her seat in November’s election, are upset over the use of the reconciliation procedure, which requires only a simple majority. An aide said Lincoln won’t offer amendments this week, but she could defect on other votes, as could Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who is opposed to the reconciliation bill.
And Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) wouldn’t commit to keeping the bill free of amendments, saying he’d take each vote “one by one.”
Any changes — big or small — could keep the health debate raging for weeks longer, a possibility not lost on GOP leaders who want to continue their assault on the sprawling health care bill that will become law Tuesday.
“We’ve been most effective when we have a chance to ... let the American people know what we’d do to reduce costs and what’s wrong with this bill,” Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, No. 3 in the GOP leadership, told POLITICO. “We’re going to continue to do both things: why we oppose the bill and think it should be repealed, and why we’d replace it with a plan to reduce health care costs.”
After the White House signing ceremony Tuesday, the Senate plans to launch into the debate over the reconciliation bill, which would institute a series of “fixes” that House Democrats demanded as a condition for clearing the Senate version of the bill. Even if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) succeeds in keeping his team largely united to beat back GOP amendments, Senate parliamentarian Alan Frumin could throw a wrench in the process.
Frumin is considering a series of GOP challenges contending that provisions in the reconciliation bill violate the Byrd rule — named after its author, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) — which prohibits the inclusion of measures that lack a budgetary impact. If Frumin agrees with the GOP and the Senate’s presiding officer does not overrule him, Democrats would almost certainly lack the 60 votes needed to override Frumin’s decision.
That would require that Democrats either dump the reconciliation bill or pass a modified version that would be sent back to the House for further modification or final approval. To be clear, the House does not want to touch health care again this year, which is why Democratic leaders need to reject every GOP amendment.
“The thing that concerns me is the unknown,” a Senate Democratic aide said Monday.
Democratic leaders have for weeks been meeting privately with Frumin for guidance on what could withstand challenges under the budget process, and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota said Monday that he is confident their bill could remain unscathed.
Still, GOP aides said Monday that they see several drafting errors that could cause portions of the reconciliation bill to be stricken. For example, they argue that a $1 billion appropriation in the bill for the Health and Human Services Department to implement the new law does not fall within the purview of either the Finance Committee or the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Republicans are also preparing for a fight over the so-called pay-as-you-go law, which says that increased spending must be offset with spending cuts elsewhere or revenue increases. The GOP says the health care legislation raises revenue from sources that are prohibited by the pay-go law, which could force across-the-board spending cuts to bring the budget in line with statutory goals.
Republicans had staked their hopes that the bill’s provisions on so-called Cadillac insurance plans violated a 1974 budget law because of its impact on the Social Security statute, and thus should have been subject to a point of order that would have effectively derailed the entire reconciliation bill. But Frumin ruled against the GOP Monday, and made the road for passage of the bill a bit easier for Democrats.
While Republicans are unified on a strategy for this week, there is no long-term consensus on repealing the bill, the latest mantra among conservative Republicans.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) has collected five Senate GOP co-sponsors to a bill that would repeal the new health care law, but some senior Republicans, such as Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona and Mike Enzi of Wyoming, said Monday that repealing specific provisions of the measure may be a more effective approach.
“I would guess probably more realistically would be a potential repeal of pieces of the bill,” said Kyl, No. 2 in GOP leadership, as Democrats clamor for a fight over repealing several of the more popular insurance reforms in the bill.