By Alexander Bolton - 03/12/10 01:17 AM EST
The Senate parliamentarian has delivered a blow to Democrats by ruling President Barack Obama must sign the broader Senate healthcare legislation before the upper chamber can take up changes demanded by the House.
The ruling means House Democrats would have to rely on a good-faith promise that senators will pass the changes after the healthcare bill is signed into law, a difficult prospect at a time when lower-chamber lawmakers have grown distrustful of their Senate counterparts.
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.
The news was delivered at a time when a number of Senate Democrats have been working diligently to assure House members they will keep their word.
Democrats had planned for Obama to sign, in quick succession, the Senate version of healthcare reform legislation and a companion measure with the changes.
But the latest development is one more reason for House lawmakers to be wary.
“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,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), assistant to the Speaker.
Rep. Michael Capuano (Mass.), one lawmaker whose vote is uncertain, outlined his misgivings about the plan to pass changes to the Senate healthcare bill using special budgetary rules known as reconciliation
“There is great risk in this course of action. If one or both parties refuse to commit to this approach, the Senate bill could be signed by the president as the final bill,” Capuano wrote this week in a letter to supporters.
The Senate is sitting on 290 bills that have passed the House so far during the 111th Congress, according to a list compiled by House Democratic leaders.
Some House Democrats worry that a bill containing changes to the Senate-passed healthcare legislation would become one more item on that heap.
Many House Democrats have strong concerns over the Senate bill. They believe it would tax the health plans of too many middle-class families and would not provide enough subsidies for people to buy health insurance.
A group of lawmakers demanded that Democratic leaders pass the Senate bill and a companion measure making changes to it — such as increasing the threshold for taxing high-cost health plans — simultaneously.
The problem is that Republicans now control 41 seats in the Senate. Any changes to the broader healthcare bill must pass the Senate under reconciliation, a process that requires only a simple majority of votes.
Democratic lawmakers such as Conrad had thought the upper chamber could move a package through the chamber under reconciliation as soon as the House passed the Senate version of the broader healthcare reform bill.
Democrats acknowledged Thursday that the parliamentarian’s ruling was a setback but argued it does not deliver a fatal blow.
“It’s just going to require a little more trust from the House that the Senate is going to do its job,” said a Democratic strategist.
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), declined to comment on the development.
The parliamentarian’s ruling surprised even top House Democrats.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said his understanding of the substance of that ruling fell in line with what was rapidly circulating though the Senate late Tuesday afternoon.
Hoyer would not say how such a ruling would affect a House plan to vote as early as next week.
A House leadership aide, though, noted that the reported ruling would only restrict what the Senate can do, and suggested its implications on the House would be limited to laying down no more than another mental hurdle.
Even before the ruling became public, wavering House lawmakers expressed their doubts about the likelihood of the Senate passing House-demanded changes.
“I hope there will be a very explicit and public understanding between the House and the Senate,” said Rep. Chris Murphy (Conn.), another Democrat who is undecided.
Democratic leaders may have a harder time convincing rank-and-file members such as Capuano and Murphy in the wake of the parliamentarian’s ruling.
Senate Republicans have tried to fuel the fears of House Democrats by pledging to wage an all-out procedural battle to gut any reconciliation package with healthcare changes.
Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and ranking Republican Budget Committee member Judd Gregg (N.H.) pledged to challenge almost every sentence of the bill.
“We’re going to go sentence by sentence through it, and if any sentence is deemed that that policy would be more significant than budget adjustments, I’ll raise a motion or someone could raise a motion, and that sentence will be knocked out,” said Gregg during a Thursday news conference.
Senators have called and met with House Democrats in recent days to reassure them about the reconciliation process.
“My experience is that ignorance breeds fear; the more you don’t communicate, the more people have reason to be fearful,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who met with Hoyer last week to explain the reconciliation process.
“It’s more trust school,” Baucus quipped about the meeting.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who was elected to the Senate in 2006 after serving two decades in the House, said he has met with half a dozen House Democrats to assuage their concerns.
“I’ve tried to give them the sense that we’re in this together to get the healthcare bill done and that there was a great deal of understanding on our side to use whatever procedures we could to help them with modifications,” said Cardin.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who served 14 years in the House, said he has talked with about 20 House members.
“They just need to trust that we’ll do it right and I think enough of us talking to them will help them do that,” Brown said.
J. Taylor Rushing and Jared Allen contributed to this article.