Republicans bracing against Democratic unity on healthcare procedure votes

Senate GOP leaders warned Tuesday they will hold Democrats accountable for procedural votes during the floor debate over healthcare reform, bracing against a sneak legislative attack from the majority party.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) left no doubt they would pursue Democrats who face reelection in 2010 by considering any procedural votes on the health bill as equally important as final votes.

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Cobbling together the Senate’s 60 Democrats on procedural votes has emerged as a likely strategy for Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). It involves a controversial legislative tactic called reconciliation that could require only a simple majority of 50 votes for final passage. That would allow the chamber’s Democratic centrists to support the party on procedural votes and still vote against the final product.

McConnell and Cornyn said they believe Reid is eying just such a strategy, comparing it to 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry’s (Mass.) famous phrase that he initially supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq before he opposed it.

“It’s appropriate to make the point at the outset that a vote on cloture on the motion to proceed to this bill will be treated as a vote on the merits of the bill,” McConnell said.

Cornyn made an even more direct threat, signaling that Democratic senators who face reelection are already being watched closely.

“I can tell you that candidates who are on the ballot in 2010 are looking with great skepticism at the plank they are being asked to walk by embracing unpopular policies that could very well lead to the end of their political career,” Cornyn said. “I would urge them to think about the consequences of voting for cloture on a bill that ultimately they may not be able to support.”

Reid did not answer directly when asked by reporters about his strategy for reaching 60 votes, saying that the process is still evolving. He did say that the bill that has been created from the Finance Committee version and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee version that is currently being scored by the Congressional Budget Office, signaling that floor debate could begin within days.

“Let’s take it one step at a time,” Reid said. “Yesterday, you [reporters] were all concerned about, ‘You can’t get this on the floor.’ Let’s get it on the floor. We’ll have an amendment process and that’s what we’ll do.”

Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and HELP Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) strove to cast the coming debate in historical terms, saying the bill’s passage was only a matter of time.

“There is a sense of inevitability, that yes we’re going to pass healthcare reform,” Baucus said. “It’s going to happen … To say this is difficult is an understatement. I’ve never attempted anything as difficult as this. But I’ve never relished anything quite like this because it’s just so important.”