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Senate Finance Committee Passes Bill 14-9: What Now?

via talkradionews

via talkradionews

The Senate Finance Committee’s passage of a health reform bill marks the end of the committee process, but only the beginning of the longer journey to passage. Starting tomorrow, Harry Reid, Max Baucus, Chris Dodd and one or two representatives from the White House will meet in Reid’s office to hammer out the details of merging the two bills. There will be a press conference with the principals tomorrow at 2pm ET. A Senate leadership aide tells me they hope that process will take a week, and the bill will reach the floor by the week of October 26th. That provides some built-in pad in case the merging process takes longer than that. Once it hits the floor, the process could take anywhere from two weeks to a month, or even more.

While the views of other Senators may be taken into account, Reid really wants to limit it to Dodd, Baucus and the White House. So there’s a narrow group of influencers responsible for the bill that will reach the floor. And given that Dodd will likely side with the HELP bill and Baucus with the Finance bill, the responsibility at this point really rests with Reid and the White House, with the White House likely to be more crucial in that process on a host of fronts, including coverage subsidies, financing, and any government insurance option. (The fact that the President is meeting one-on-one with Evan Bayh today shows that they are bearing down on this process.)

The wild card in all of this is Olympia Snowe’s yes vote on the Baucus bill today, despite all kinds of pressure from Republicans to vote against it. Nobody was happier about this than Baucus, because he probably thinks he can use it to muscle Dodd and Reid into essentially keeping his bill intact for the floor. The White House is clearly dying for something they can call bipartisan support, and will likely want to use Snowe in that capacity, as well as who she could bring along – Bill Nelson already intimated today that Susan Collins would come along with Snowe (although her role is probably more as cover for moderate Democrats). Snowe pointedly rejected the public option in her comments.

Crucially, the aide confirmed that it is probably the case that every amendment to the merged bill will require a 60-vote threshold as per the unanimous consent agreement. This protects the bill itself, but will make it extremely difficult to amend the bill meaningfully on the Senate floor. While this means, for example, that it will be virtually impossible to add a public insurance option through an amendment, it also means that it will be virtually impossible to REMOVE one through an amendment as well. So the Reid/Baucus/Dodd/WH confab really will determine whether any public option gets in the bill that goes to conference, in all likelihood.

It’s hard but not impossible to influence the process at this point. FDL has a petition calling on Reid to force those in the caucus who would join a Republican filibuster into the open. The aide told me that nobody in the caucus has stated their willingness to join a filibuster, though Joe Lieberman flirted with that on Imus today. As long as nobody wants to be saddled with killing the public option, it remains alive. Though now, expect a push to blame Olympia Snowe for having to kill it as a concession for her support, even though from a numbers standpoint, that makes no sense.

Update: Senate Majority Leader Reid has issued a statement on the vote. Note the emphasis:

I am pleased that the Senate Finance Committee voted today to pass their health insurance reform proposal.  This represents another critical step toward bringing real change to our broken health insurance system.

I praise the leadership of Chairman Baucus for guiding this proposal through his Committee.  Sen. Snowe is also to be commended for voting for this proposal in the face of immense pressure from opponents of reform.  Her courage to stick with her principles in the face of an increasingly partisan environment in Washington, DC is heartening and should serve as a reminder that health care is an issue that should defy party labels.

In the Senate, we now move to the important work of merging the proposals of the HELP and Finance Committees with the committee chairmen and the White House in order to craft a bill that can garner 60 votes in the Senate. We remain committed to passing legislation that lowers costs, creates competition, improves quality of care and preserves choice.

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David Dayen

David Dayen