CNBC reported briefly that Nancy Pelosi was confident she had the votes to pass the Senate health care bill, with assurances that the Senate would then pass a “sidecar” series of amendments through reconciliation. But that was quickly debunked. She didn’t actually say it.

What Pelosi actually said is she is determined 2 pass a #hcr bill. She said that Senate must make changes thru reconciliation FIRST.

Basically, we’re bogged down in procedural details. Pelosi passed the ball over to the Senate to deal with the fixes before her chamber would take up the bill. And the Senate is claiming procedural difficulties.

The latest: Senior Senate aides say they’ve hit an impasse over one of the proposed routes forward — the scenario where the Senate would pass a reconciliation “sidecar” fix to the Senate bill first, making it easier for the House to then follow up and pass the Senate bill.

Senate aides say that they’re not sure this possibility — one of several floated by Dem leaders, and one preferred by some House Dems — is procedurally workable. And they say figuring out whether that’s feasible is what’s causing the delay.

“Neither the House nor the Senate have figured out how to pass a reconciliation sidecar first,” one senior Senate aide says. “We are being asked to pass a piece of legislation that amends another piece of legislation which does not exist yet. We are having problems with the CBO and parliamentarian on that front.”

David Waldman can do this better than I can, but there needs to be a vehicle to move the reconciliation part of the bill, and the short answer is that Congress can probably do this, and quickly. They certainly have the prior history of using reconciliation to enact policy – COBRA, which provides health care to the unemployed, stands for the Combined Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. It’s a matter of sequencing, really. But even in David’s scenario, the House would have to pass something first, and that could be the nature of the Senate’s objection.

Another matter, and I hate to keep bringing this up, is the abortion issue. Nick Baumann gets Harry Reid’s spokesman on the record that changing the abortion language through reconciliation isn’t going to work.

reconciliation rules forbid the inclusion of any provisions that have no effect on the budget. When the abortion language in the Senate bill was added as a last-minute compromise, the Congressional Budget Office actually certified that it had no budgetary effect. (Otherwise, the whole bill would have to be rescored.) That will make it very hard, if not impossible, to argue that the abortion provisions can be changed using the reconciliation process.

When I asked Reid’s spokesman, Jim Manley, whether the Majority Leader’s office understood the rules as preventing the Senate from altering the bill’s abortion language, he emailed back immediately. “I believe that is correct,” he wrote.

If Reid’s office stands by that stance, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is in a real bind. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who pushed for the House bill’s strict limits on abortion coverage, has warned that he has 10 to 12 Democrats (including himself) who voted for the House bill but are committed to opposing the Senate bill’s abortion language. And without Stupak’s 10 to 12 lawmakers, getting the votes to pass the Senate bill in the House—even if other fixes are made using reconciliation—will be very, very hard.

Nate Silver has the most comprehensive look yet at the road to 218, given the likely failure to placate the Stupak Democrats. He concedes that it’s a long road, albeit not an impossible one.

Clearly, this all needs to happen fast. Bob Casey (D-PA) describes it as health care reform having weeks to live. When Bernie Sanders is bargaining for a scaled-back approach, you know that this sidecar strategy either needs to come together real soon, or it won’t at all.

Which brings us to the State of the Union tonight. In this morning’s lead-ups, health care was not pushed as a central part of the speech. Later briefings suggested that he would reaffirm a commitment to overhauling health care, and would call for Democratic unity on a comprehensive plan. Democrats on the Hill are waiting for a sign from their President.

There’s been no clear message on the way forward for health-care reform. No clear articulation of preferences. No public leadership to speak of. The administration is taking temperatures rather than twisting arms. The White House press team is blasting out speeches where the president says he’ll never stop fighting on health care but pointedly refuses to throw a punch. The president is giving interviews where he seems to endorse paring the bill back and also seems to argue against doing anything of the kind. The daily message has run from banks to freezes, and early leaks suggest that tonight’s speech will focus on education […]

The wild card in all of this is Obama himself. And the hope of many reformers is that the White House will play that card in tonight’s State of the Union. But as of last night, the language of the speech wasn’t finished, and no one seemed certain of where the president would finally come down […]

But everyone agrees on one thing: Tonight’s speech is the most important of his young presidency, and it will be the most revealing of his career. Does he stand and fight for a health-care bill he believes to be a historic and necessary step forward? Or does he back away from it, letting some gestures toward his commitment to the issue stand in for the determined leadership — and the political gamble — that would represent real commitment to the issue?

During the campaign, Obama famously told Patrick Gaspard, his political director, “just give me the ball.” Today, Obama is the president of the United States. He’s got a lot of people screaming at him and cheering for him, and almost as many shouting advice. But he’s the guy with the ball. The question is what he does with it.

We’ll know in a few hours.

David Dayen

David Dayen

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