The real news about the health care bill is that nothing is happening. We’re in the third day of debate, just two amendments have been filed, and no votes have been taken. Most things in the Senate require unanimous consent, and Mitch McConnell is in no mood to allow that consent. So the debate goes on, and on, and on.

Dems aren’t acting like they have many arrows in their quiver. Jim Manley is trying to sow discord among the GOP caucus on whether they all really want to obstruct. Given that unanimous consent has to be unanimous, I’m not sure it matters that some Republicans wanted to move forward.

The latest threat from Senate Democrats is that they’re willing to stay through Christmas week. Threatening to stay Thanksgiving week was enough to get Republicans to back down on the motion to proceed, but consider this: Republicans have waged a decades-long project to not allow health care reform to pass, because they think it would be political suicide for them. In order to believe the notion that Republicans could be pressured into relenting from obstruction, you’d have to believe that they have felt any pressure from the historic obstructionism from the last three years.

Democrats can talk and talk about how they won’t wait forever, but there isn’t really the kind of mechanism that would realistically pressure REpublicans to relent. The other thing they could do is start tabling amendments – but then their amendments could be tabled as well.

Currently, Reid and the Democrats are considering their options for moving the debate forward, and actually holding votes. The main possibility being considered is that Reid could move to table irrelevant Republican amendments.

“If we’re not allowed to move we’re going to have to start tabling amendments,” Harkin said.

That could set off a dangerous dynamic, wherein Republicans table Democratic amendments, too, including some amendments (on issues like abortion and the public option) that are key to the rounding up the 60 votes Democrats need to overcome a filibuster and pass the bill.

Reid could file cloture on amendments, but that would be almost just as slow a process, requiring cloture to ripen, and 30 hours of debate. He could “fill the amendment tree” and limit the total number, or he could just ask for cloture on the whole bill as is. Republicans would scream, but if they could pass it, so be it.

The real answer here is that Reid doesn’t yet have the 60 votes. If he did, he would have a lot of other means at his disposal. As negotiations continue on key elements, this obstruction will continue, and Democrats can (and should) try to make political hay from it. But if they have the votes, they would move the bill.

Ben Nelson’s response shows you that’s not yet the case:

“[Tabling] is obviously one of the methods of dealing with amendments that aren’t necessarily acceptable,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE). “I haven’t concluded that Republicans have tried to hold [the bill] up necessarily. I assume that they’re negotiating in good faith to get a way forward for amendments on both sides.”

Of course he assumes that. Because he wants to change the bill, and with a tabling, he wouldn’t be able to do it, especially on the Stupak-like amendment he wants to add and has threatened to oppose the bill if it is not included.

Basically, yes, the GOP could obstruct this forever – until the moment Reid sees a way to hold his caucus. Then things can move with lightning speed.

David Dayen

David Dayen