With Joe Lieberman basically blowing up the health care bill and making the notion dubious that 60 Senators will ever end a filibuster of health care reform, more and more people inside and outside of the Senate are looking to procedural rather than policy maneuvers as the answer to break the deadlock.

This idea that the CBO scores will somehow allay everyone’s fears and bring a last-minute agreement at this point is pretty absurd – Lieberman objected to the bill out of hand before seeing any of the numbers. He can no longer be seen as a partner in this effort – which means that only options which can get less than a super-majority threshold are the ones which can get the necessary votes in the Senate and in the House, where they are unlikely to rubber stamp anything written primarily for the support of an Olympia Snowe or Susan Collins.

So far, very few Senators are willing to go on the record about procedural changes that would alter the calculus on the health care bill and others going forward. Tom Harkin mused about eliminating the filibuster a few days ago on a conference call with reporters, but he didn’t exactly say he would introduce legislation or work for its passage.

There are other options open to members of the Senate, chiefly the budget reconciliation process, where the Senate could pass a health care measure with as little as 50 votes. A bill coming out of that process would look substantially different than anything voted on in the House or Senate so far, with all of the provisions needing to directly impact the federal budget. Some have in the past called for a two-stage approach, with budget-related items, like the public insurance option, going through reconciliation and getting 50 votes, while the more popular insurance regulations could go under regular order and garner 60.

Bernie Sanders, the socialist independent from Vermont, has talked previously about “reconciliation being an alternative that should be considered,” according to his office. With the chaos of the current weekend’s developments just coming into focus, Sanders isn’t going further than that, arguing that “I think we need to keep our powder dry until the situation sorts out a little more.” However, he is among a host of Democrats who may want to revisit the reconciliation option if it is the only path to a bill that doesn’t, in the words of Russ Feingold, create a system that takes subsidies in taxpayer dollars and creates profits for the insurance industry.

Reconciliation would be an enervating process, but no more so than the current scrambling to please the likes of Snowe, Collins, Lieberman and Ben Nelson to get some magical 60-vote formula, taking away many of the useful elements of reform in the process. More practically, the House of Representatives simply isn’t all that likely to assent to anything coming from that sausage-making process, leaving only the procedural path open to those who want a bill.

Senate aides are concerned that going for reconciliation will alienate moderate Senators on the Democratic side who will then have no leverage on a final bill, and that they will take this out on future bills. They may also vote against insurance regulations in the part of the bill that couldn’t go through reconciliation. This seems backwards to me – conservative Democrats have had every opportunity to influence this bill and they’ve done nothing with that opportunity but obstruct. Furthermore, Ben Nelson himself said that his willingness to be constructive on health care was entirely predicated on the possibility of reconciliation. It seems that pulling the trigger on this with respect to health care would make the likes of Nelson MORE aware of this possibility, and more constructive as a result, than putting forward an empty threat.

Democrats in the leadership seem to be content to explore every alternative available before turning to reconciliation, but it looks to many like every avenue has already been traveled. It’s worth watching the leadership slowly move to acceptance on that as the weeks of deadlock continue.

David Dayen

David Dayen