Friday, October 9, 2009

The Path From Here: House

We've all talked about nothing but the's worth going over the basics of the House procedure. If you know how the House functions, skip this one.

First, the leadership and committee leaders are putting together the three House committee bills. We haven't heard very much about this. My main question is whether there's any pre-coordination going on with the Senate. Obviously, there are going to be significant differences between the two bills, but there's nothing to keep them from being as similar as possible at this point -- nothing, that is, except for the tradition that each House of Congress minds its own business. We know, however, that the White House is actively involved in putting together the Senate bill. Presumably they are at least monitoring what's happening on the House side; perhaps, it's a lot more. This will matter down the road.

Second, the bill heads to the Rules Committee, and then to the floor. The Rules Committee, which is a servant of the leadership, gets to decide which amendments to allow during floor deliberation. The only constraint is that the "rule" has to get a majority on the House floor. So, Republican ploys to add killer amendments or tough votes won't be allowed. The Republicans do get a chance, if they want it, to get a vote on their own version of health care reform ( a motion to recommit with instructions) at the end of the process.

The reporting I've seen, by the way, is not clear about whether a strong public option actually does have 218 votes in the House, although I suspect it does. The difficulty in the House, right now, is that since everyone expects the Senate bill to be more conservative (meaning: considered more conservative) than the House bill, marginal House Dems are reluctant to wind up voting for the "liberal" bill that didn't pass, even though they will be happy to vote for the "moderate" bill that does pass. That applies to the public option question; I'm fairly certain that there are enough votes to pass a public option in the House if it was actually going to become law, but there are certainly quite a few House Dems who don't want to have that vote on their records if it is going to be the rejected liberal alternative (and, of course, a whole lot of House Dems with safe districts who want to take that vote to prove their liberal credentials). Fortunately, Pelosi, Waxman, and the rest of the key players here are very good at their jobs, and I expect them to work it out. What's been going on for some time now (since July, really) is that they can do that better if they have more information, so they're essentially waiting until the Senate produces that information.

As everyone knows, all the bill needs then is a simply majority in the House to pass.

The next step (once both the House and Senate have passed their bills) is a conference to produce a single bill. Conferences these days are mostly done, in reality, in small groups of leaders (including, in this instance, representatives from the White House). In my view, this is a dangerous time for Members of the House and Senators, who will by then have voted for actual bills which can then be attacked for all sorts of real and imagined weaknesses. Conferences can take any length of time -- this one will, it seems to me, be longer or shorter based mainly on how much pre-negotiation is being done right now. Remember, the very visible issues (such as the public option) are not necessarily the sticking points; these are big, complex, bills, with lots of moving parts, and lots of seemingly obscure provisions that (1) really do actually make a lot of difference to people down the road and (2) may engage the intense lobbying efforts of narrowly focused interest groups and the Members of Congress who represent them. Given the certain narrow margin in the Senate, and the likely narrow margin in the House, these obscure provisions can threaten to derail everything -- and while those sort of things can be worked out, it can add to the time that Members are hanging out there in the wind, being battered by whatever nonsense Palin or whoever comes up with.

OK, that's the path from here. Next stop: the formal Senate Finance Committee vote, and then on to the floor. Lots and lots of key policy questions still undecided. As Ezra says: uncharted territory.

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