New front in healthcare war: Procedure votes

A fight over Senate procedural votes on healthcare reform holds dangers for both parties.

Republicans this week warned they’ll consider procedural motions that move the healthcare reform bill forward as votes on the substance of the bill.

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“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,” GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said this week.
The threats were meant to pre-empt what has emerged as a likely legislative strategy for Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — keeping all 60 Democrats together on procedural votes, and then letting Democrats vote their conscience on the actual healthcare bill. Democrats would be asked to vote with their party on procedural votes, but could vote against the final bill.

“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,” said National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas). “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.”

Procedural votes have long been used in campaign attack ads and are always a battleground in the Senate, but this time the debate will echo far beyond the beltway.

Given the high stakes of the healthcare fight, the vote to end debate in the Senate will be one of the biggest procedural votes in years.

Democrats warn they can play the game of scoring procedural votes as well.

Within hours of Cornyn’s comments, a Reid spokesman fired back by noting that Republicans had recently cast procedural votes against funding the U.S. military.

Indeed, a Democratic review of votes from the 111th Congress shows Republicans cast procedural votes against a Medicare bill, a clean-water funding bill, a commerce and justice-funding bill, a fraud-enforcement bill, a national service bill, a travel promotion bill, a federal spending bill, a voting rights bill and an equal pay bill. In all, the review shows at least 20 instances this year when only Republicans or a majority of Republicans cast procedural votes against popular initiatives.

Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) noted on Thursday that 13 Republicans had recently cast votes against extending unemployment benefits. Many of them represent states with more than 10 percent unemployment.

“Does that mean they don’t care about unemployment, if procedural votes are substantive votes?” Durbin said. “Last week when they voted against cloture on providing money for troops, that they in fact don’t want our troops to receive that money? Senator McConnell better be careful. If that’s the standard he wants to use, some members of his caucus have some explaining to do.”

The issue gained traction the next day, when Republican aides seized on comments by moderate Democrat Evan Bayh (Ind.) that echoed an interview Bayh gave The Hill in August, saying that he considers procedural votes as equally important as final votes.

A public relations firm opposing the card-check bill supported by labor unions highlighted Bayh’s comments in a press release on Wednesday, as did Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) in a meeting that day with reporters. Alexander signaled the GOP would pursue the same tactic during the so-called “card check” debate.

Republicans say their emphasis on procedural votes is justified because the massive nature of the healthcare bill changes the rules.

“The dynamics of the healthcare bill are very different, because it’s going to take 60 votes to get on it, and it’s going to take 60 to get off it,” said GOP Policy Chairman John Thune (S.D.). “On an issue of this consequence, with the stakes so high, there’s going to be a lot of scrutiny and attention and weight on motions to proceed.”

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Thune and other GOP senators also say Democrats who support procedural votes do so with full knowledge that the bill will likely pass with 51 votes.

“If you vote to get on it, then the likelihood is we’re going to get it. And you know that before you vote, so you know what you’re doing,” said Tom Coburn (Okla.). “Do both parties do it? Sure they do. But the fact is, have we ever done it on one-sixth of our economy?”

In issuing their warnings, McConnell and Alexander compared the Democratic dilemma on procedural votes to Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) famous quote that he initially supported $87 billion in funding for U.S. troops in Iraq “before I voted against it.”

Kerry and then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) were pushing a proposal that funded the troops by scaling back the Bush administration’s tax cuts on higher-income Americans. When that proposal failed, Kerry eventually opposed the funding resolution because it was financed by adding to the deficit.

Told that Republicans were recycling the six-year-old quote for the healthcare debate, Kerry told The Hill he didn’t mind.

“If that’s the best argument they can make, they’re in trouble,” he said. “And if there’s one of them that can’t point to having changed on one vote or another, procedurally or otherwise, I would be shocked.”