Senate GOP skeptical of chances to take down healthcare reform

Senior Senate Republicans are skeptical of their chances to block major elements of a Democratic reconciliation package of healthcare reforms this week, avoiding the bold predictions of victory that have marked their statements for months.

A weeklong series of fits and starts is likely for the 153-page package that Democratic leaders will try to push through the upper chamber using reconciliation rules that will allow its passage with a simple majority of 51 votes. Republicans have threatened for months to make the process as grueling as possible, challenging the bill on virtually a line-by-line basis.

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“We’re going to go sentence-by-sentence through however many pages there turns out to be, and enforce the rules of the Senate, which is our responsibility,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.). “Every action we take will be a responsible action to enforce credible, significant amendments and points of order.”

But in deference to the House healthcare vote and the fact that Democrats control 59 Senate seats, gone is the bravado that marked many of the public statements by senior Republicans such as Alexander, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and others.

Instead, Republicans say they simply don’t know how successful they will be.

“I don’t know — 50-50,” said GOP Policy Chairman John Thune (S.D.), when asked to assess the party’s chances of blocking the package. “We’ll use amendments, points of order, whatever works. We’re assuming we can have a fair and open, honest debate as far the parliamentarian is concerned. We don’t have any reason to believe that won’t be the case.”

“I have no idea,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, when asked to gauge the chances for GOP success. “We intend to make it a heavy lift to pass a reconciliation bill across the floor, which we think is a very bad bill.”

2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain (Ariz.) said President Barack Obama’s postponement of his Indonesia trip suggests that Democrats are confident of their votes in both the House and Senate.

“I just don’t know. I just don’t know,” McCain said when asked about the chances for blocking the bill. “It’s hard for me to imagine the president delaying his trip without them thinking they’re going to pass it, but we’ll keep fighting.”

Republicans will concentrate their fire this week on several provisions in the bill they find particularly objectionable: Proposed changes to an excise tax on high-end healthcare plans, and a payroll tax break for union construction workers.

Taking center stage over the next few days will be Senate Parliamentarian Alan Frumin, whose objectivity and respect by both parties will be put to the test. It is Frumin who will rule on Republicans’ procedural objections, possibly allowing the GOP to knock out enough of the bill’s provisions to claim victory even if the bill ultimately passes.

Ironically, Frumin’s rulings aren’t mandatory; whichever Democrat is presiding over the chamber at the time could simply overrule him, although such a situation is seldom done. Vice President Joe Biden, who could cast a tie-breaking vote, could also overrule Frumin.

The central questions will revolve around a Senate tradition known as the Byrd Rule, named after Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.), who included the provision in the 1974 Budget Act. The rule simply states that legislation passed under reconciliation must be related to the federal budget, and Republicans will try to use it to knock down as much of the reconciliation bill as possible. Gregg has threatened to turn the bill into “Swiss cheese,” and on Thursday also pledged to enforce the Byrd rule’s ban on any provisions in the bill that affect the Social Security system.

The fight will begin quickly. Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said the bill would hit the Senate floor “forthwith,” and Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-S.D.) said it could “possibly” be introduced as early as Monday. More likely, however, the bill would be introduced on Tuesday, with a mandatory 20 hours of debate. Democratic leaders are hoping for a Friday or Saturday vote; they stress it is not a deadline, but they are certainly going to push to pass it before Congress’s two-week Easter/Passover break starts on Monday, March 29.

One outcome appears certain already: The final vote won’t be bipartisan. Moderate GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, well-known in the Senate for working across the aisle with Democrats, said it will be a party-line vote that “poisons the atmosphere” because of the controversy surrounding reconciliation.

“It will make it very difficult for members to work together on huge issues that confront us,” she said. “This reminds me so much of when I joined the Gang of 14 to prevent my party from changing the rules of the Senate on judicial nominees. It’s the same kind of feeling, and just as Harry Reid said it would be calamitous for the Senate, I feel this is going to be calamitous for the Senate.”

Senior Democrats and Republicans plan to meet with Frumin on Monday to determine the road ahead. Both sides have already been meeting with the parliamentarian, and as a preparatory tactic, Democrats last weekend met with Frumin to “scrub” the bill of any objectionable provisions.

Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), said he did not believe enough provisions would be knocked out of the bill to force its return to the House for another vote.

Schumer and other senior Democrats say they are certain of passage.

“They can slow it down, but they can’t stop it,” Schumer said of Senate Republicans.

“I’m very confident — and I say that as the chairman of the committee,” said Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). “I’ve been working on this for a long time. We will have the votes and we will get the job done. It’s unstoppable. It’s come too far and we’re too close and we’re going to get it over the finish line. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.) said the Democratic caucus has unified in recent weeks around the reconciliation package and its overall themes, and that Republicans’ tactics could look desperate to C-SPAN viewers.

“As the country has been debating these issues, we have too,” Casey said. “A lot of people focus on the work that’s been done over the last couple of weeks, but we worked out a lot of differences at the end of last year. That helps us be unified.

“Republicans will try to make it as hard as they can for us, but at the end of the day it’s going to be a vote to protect insurance companies and grow the deficit. It’s going to be a tougher vote for them than for us.”