Senate parliamentarian raises bar for passing healthcare reform

The Senate parliamentarian has ruled that President Barack Obama must sign the healthcare reform bill before Democrats can use special budget rules to pass changes demanded by the House.
 
Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, told colleagues about the ruling Thursday afternoon, according to a Democratic source familiar with the meeting.
 

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The ruling is a blow to Democrats who planned for Obama to sign in quick succession the Senate version of healthcare reform legislation and a companion measure with changes requested by House lawmakers.
 
House lawmakers, who are distrustful of their Senate counterparts, have demanded that both measures pass Congress at the same time. Some House members worry that if they passed the Senate healthcare bill, senators would not approve the sidecar measure with the changes at a later date.

Democrats acknowledged the parliamentarian’s ruling was a setback but argued that it does not deliver a fatal blow.

“If this is true, it will mean that we have to find a device to receive absolute assurances from our Senate colleagues that they’ll be able to complete the reconciliation process in the Senate,” Assistant to the Speaker Chris Van Hollen said.

“We will have to confer with our Senate colleagues until we find something satisfactory to our Caucus,” he said.

Van Hollen hedged when asked what such a device would have to look like.

Said a Democratic strategist: “It’s just going to require a little more trust from the House that the Senate is going to do its job."

House Democratic leaders including Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) seemed surprised by the news.

Neither Hoyer nor Van Hollen would say how the ruling would affect a House plan to vote as early as next week on a reconciliation bill along with the Senate bill.

A House leadership aide, however, noted that the reported ruling would only restrict what the Senate can do, and suggested that its implications on the House would be limited to laying down no more than another mental hurdle for House Democrats to clear.

Democratic lawmakers such as Conrad had thought the Senate could pass the sidecar bill under reconciliation after the House had passed the Senate version of healthcare reform.

"The Senate Parliamentarian’s office has informed Senate Republicans that reconciliation instructions require the measure to make changes in law," said a senior GOP aide.
 
The Congressional Budget Office could give the broader healthcare bill an official cost estimate once the Senate and House acted.
 
Conrad expected that would have been enough basis for Congress to then act on a reconciliation measure to make changes, such as increasing the threshold for taxing high-cost insurance plans.

Alan Frumin, the parliamentarian, decided to hold the Senate to a stricter standard.
 
“The parliamentarian is raising the bar but it’s not an insurmountable hurdle,” said the Democratic strategist.

Jared Allen contributed to this story.

This story was updated at 6:04 p.m.