Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Obama Admistration Would Do Well to Read the Senate Rules and the Polls

The latest reports are that the White House is getting ready to ditch any thoughts about a bipartisan health care bill and just ram the Democratic bills through the Senate with bare majorities.

Readers of this blog know that I don’t think it is ever possible to ram anything so big as health care through with slim Congressional majorities and even less public support. I would suggest people who think this is a good idea take a look at two things—the latest polls and the Byrd Rule.

Today, NBC is out with a poll that shows support for the Democratic bills well under 50%--and worse amongst swing independent voters. That is not to say the Republicans are doing well either—but they aren’t trying to ram anything through.

This poll was taken August 15th to the 17th—after the President’s town halls.

A few of the findings:

  • 54% are worried that government is going too far—41% are worried that reform will not do enough to lower costs and cover the uninsured.
  • 41% approve of the President’s handling of health care—47% disapprove.
  • Just 36% believe that Obama’s efforts to reform the health care system are a good idea—only 24% think they will result in better quality.
  • 43% say they approve of a public option—47% oppose it.
  • The cheap shots are having an effect—majorities think the Democrats would grant coverage to illegal immigrants, for example.
  • Only 21% approve of the Republican’s handling of health care.
  • 60% said the system needs big change—but that is down 12 points since April.

The notion that Democrats can ram something so big as health care reform through with the 41% approval rating the President now has on health care is just nuts.

Politically, they would be asking for an even bigger polarization on this issue than we already have. It is hard to believe they wouldn’t pay a huge price for that in November 2010. I know many liberals think this is the right course but the fact is that Obama won the presidency and Democrats extended their Congressional majorities not because of who liberals voted for but who moderates in this country voted for.

More, they can’t pass health care reform in the U.S. Senate with 51 votes. The “reconciliation” rules that allow for 51 votes are budget rules. The second the Dems try that route a Republican Senator will rise with a “point of order” successfully pointing out that 900 of the thousand page bill is “extraneous” to the budget—things like a public option, insurance exchanges, new underwriting rules.

The opportunity for parliamentary objections would occur under the “Byrd Rule.”

Here is the summary of the Byrd Rule from the Congressional Research Service:

The Byrd rule defines matter to be extraneous in six cases: (1) if it does not produce a change in outlays or revenues; (2) if it produces an outlay increase or revenue decrease when the instructed committee is not in compliance with its instructions; (3) if it is outside the jurisdiction of the committee that submitted the title or provision for inclusion in the reconciliation measure; (4) if it produces a change in outlays or revenues which is merely incidental to the non-budgetary components of the provision; (5) if it would increase the deficit for a fiscal year beyond those covered by the reconciliation measure; and (6) if it recommends changes in Social Security. (Italics added)

The first point, that reconciliation cannot be used to for matters that did not produce a change in outlays or revenues, would likely be the provision a Republican would use—pointing to insurance underwriting rule reform, for example, as not having a federal budget impact.

Law in the Budget Act defines the Byrd Rule—it cannot be suspended by a simple majority vote in the Senate.

It is likely that a Republican point of order on a any one of the non budget items in the bill would be found “extraneous” by the Senate parliamentarian—there is enormous precedent for such a ruling. In fact, the rule’s author, Robert Byrd (D-WV), warned President Clinton that he could not use reconciliation to ram his health plan through!

To overcome the parliamentarian’s ruling would take 60 votes.

The upshot of all of this—it will take 60 votes to pass a comprehensive health care bill.

It will also take a lot more than a 41% health care approval rating.

The White House needs to start thinking about how it will accomplish that and stop the threats it can’t carry through on.

August 20 update: Splitting the Bills? The Democratic Leadership and the White House Staff Really Need a Vacation

Avoid having to check back. Subscribe to Health Care Policy and Marketplace Review and receive an email each time we post.

Blog Archive