Critical Condition

Conventional Wisdom

The AP answers questions about health care:

Q: What weapons do Republicans have?

A: They can claim that certain provisions violate the budget act, which if the Senate parliamentarian agrees would strip those items from the legislation. The constraints include the “Byrd rule,” which requires that language in a reconciliation bill — and amendments to it — be chiefly aimed at revising spending and tax laws.

The top Republican on the Budget Committee, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said in an interview he has about a dozen points of order he can use to “punch holes” in the bill.

Should the parliamentarian uphold such a challenge, Democrats would need 60 votes to keep the language in the bill — unlikely in the partisanly charged health care fight. Knowing this, House and Senate Democratic leaders are trying to produce a bill that won’t be vulnerable to such challenges.

Q: Can Republicans try to amend the legislation?

A: Absolutely, and theoretically they can offer an unlimited number of amendments. After the 20 hours of debate have expired, they begin a so-called vote-a-rama, an exhausting marathon in which senators vote on amendments with little or no debate or interruption.

Some past reconciliation bills have seen scores of amendments handled this way. Conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said in an interview that Republicans “won’t have any trouble having hundreds of amendments,” though he said each would make a valid point and not be aimed at delay.

Q: Can Democrats curb this?

A: Republicans will need the physical stamina to offer an unending parade of amendments. With votes occurring every few minutes, Democrats won’t make it easy for them by allowing many breaks.

Reid might ask the Senate parliamentarian to rule that the sheer number of amendments is aimed at slowing a process designed to expedite legislation. A parliamentarian has never decided that question. Should he conclude that the amendments are dilatory, Republicans could challenge the ruling but would need a majority of votes to win — virtually impossible under these circumstances.

With Democrats casting the GOP as the “party of no,” Republicans might hesitate to feed that perception with obvious delaying tactics. On the other hand, stifling GOP efforts to revise the legislation could reinforce Republican accusations that Democrats are strong-arming them.

Q: What else could Republicans do?

A: The 20 hours of debate excludes the time needed to read amendments or vote on them. Coburn wouldn’t say if Republicans would craft an extremely long amendment. Once again, the parliamentarian has never ruled on whether an amendment should not be read because its sheer length makes it a dilatory tactic.

Q: So it looks tough for Republicans to defeat the bill in the Senate?

A: Yes, but remember: Republicans can score political points even as they lose votes.

They can offer amendments highlighting their own vision of health overhaul, or even completely unrelated but embarrassing amendments such as closing the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Even knowing their amendments would lose or be declared out of order, they could force symbolic votes that might produce fodder for campaign season TV ads.

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