WASHINGTON — Senate Democratic leaders have laid out an ambitious timetable for passing the health care bill on Christmas Eve. But if they're successful with their strategy, the vote that matters most and sets the stage for final passage would happen on Monday.
To be successful, the plan assumes Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will have three key elements before the weekend: the bill's cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office, the legislation completely written and available to the public, and assurance from all 60 members of his caucus that they will vote for the package.
As of this writing, none of those things has materialized.
The timeline also assumes that Democratic strategists have accounted for every possible grenade that Republicans could throw in their path. Some Republicans have made it clear that they're hell-bent on either slowing down the process or killing the bill completely.
With this as the backdrop, let's take a look at Reid's game plan:
On Wednesday, the Senate temporarily moved off of the health care overhaul to deal with a bill funding Defense Department operations and programs. Considering all the procedural hoops that Republicans will likely make Democrats jump through, the final vote on the Defense bill will be Saturday. Yes, the Senate will be working on the weekend — both Saturday and Sunday.
On Saturday, Reid will start the process of bringing the health care bill to final passage.
The bill is separated into three distinct parts which must be passed separately. Each section requires two votes. Of these, the first vote — called cloture — is to break the filibuster and requires 60 votes. The second vote is for passage, requiring a simple majority. Because of Senate rules, there will likely be 30 hours between those two votes.
Part 1: 'Manager's amendment'
This is the part of the bill that includes all the last minute fixes, most importantly stripping the public option and probably including suitable abortion language — assuming Democrats can reach an agreement on the issue. Once this part of the bill is passed, requiring 60 votes, it's effectively done. Reid will have to pass to other parts of the bill, but that's really more about formality and process.
The cloture vote would be sometime Monday. This is the most important vote in this process. If Reid gets 60 for this — the most controversial parts of the entire bill for Democrats — it's assumed he'll get 60 for everything else. Passage of the manager's amendment would be Tuesday.Video: Snowe concerned vote is being rushed
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There is one little wrinkle, however: Republicans have threatened (and promised) to make the Senate clerk read the entire manager's amendment aloud. But a Democratic source knee-deep in strategy talks feels like they can have the amendment read within eight to 10 hours and still stay on the Christmas Eve timetable. But if they're wrong and it takes a lot longer, it could push the entire schedule off by a day, thereby pushing the vote until after the holiday.
Part 2: 'Substitute amendment'
This is the essentially the bill that was created when Reid merged the Senate Finance and Health Committee bills. It included the public option/opt out provision, but the manager's amendment — mentioned above — stripped it out. This has all the other major parts of the health care bill: the exchanges, the subsidies, insurance reforms, etc.
Again, if the above manager's amendment gets the 60 votes it, this should get 60 votes too. Expect the cloture vote on Tuesday and passage on Wednesday.
Part 3: 'The underlying bill'
This is the bill that everything else sits on, but it's really just an empty shell.
(Consider this just the pizza dough; the "substitute" and "manager's'" amendments are the toppings.)
Most people don't realize the underlying bill is not even a health care bill. It's actually called "Service Members Home Ownership Tax Act."
Expect a cloture vote on Wednesday and Senate passage on Thursday, Christmas Eve.
Procedural stumbling blocks?
In addition to the procedural stumbling blocks being planned by Senate Republicans (see manager's amendment), proponents of the legislation continue to skirmish with disappointed Democratic allies.
Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean continued to advocate Thursday for scrapping the entire reform proposal, telling MSNBC’s "Morning Joe" that the bill has been reduced to “an insurance company’s dream.” Video: Left hook: Dean deals blow to health bill
Some of the former Vermont governor’s concerns were echoed by two powerful labor groups that mobilized to support Obama during the 2008 general election.
In a letter to 2.1 million members, Service Employees International Union president Andrew Stern sharply criticized several of the bill’s provisions, warning that Obama “must remember his own words from the campaign” and fight for better reforms.
In a statement, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called the Senate bill "inadequate" and "too kind to the insurance industry."
Obama senior advisor David Axelrod responded to detractors on MSNBC Thursday, saying that the defeat of the overhaul effort at the hands of disillusioned progressives would be “a tragic, tragic outcome.”
Dean’s outspoken opposition to the Senate’s incrementally-crafted legislation is “predicated on a bunch of erroneous conclusions,” Axelrod argued.
Sticking to the plan
But Democratic leaders are resolute in adhering to the legislative schedule that they've created for themselves. They've even left some wiggle room for error. But too much error could push the vote until after Christmas.
The big vote to watch for will be on Monday. If Reid can hold his caucus together and get 60 votes, the other votes should fall in place like dominoes.
But with strategists gaming the wire-tight schedule out hour by hour, some of the votes may occur after midnight or before breakfast.
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