60 Votes

| Tue Aug. 18, 2009 11:36 AM EDT

Quick background: Republicans will filibuster any healthcare bill that reaches the floor of the Senate, and it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster.  If a healthcare bill includes a public option provision, it's vanishingly unlikely that we can find those 60 votes.  But budget reconciliation bills can't be filibustered, so an alternative is to include the public option but then introduce the bill via the reconciliation process, where it needs only 50 votes to pass.

So then: A couple of days ago I asked what would happen if Democrats did this.  The reconciliation process can only be used to pass provisions with direct budget impact, so the question is: which provisions would be deemed to have no budget impact and therefore get tossed out?  Stan Collender is a serious budget wonk of many years' standing, but it turns out that even he really doesn't have any idea:

The question isn't at all clear cut.  Is a provision a line in a bill, a phrase in a line, a whole section of legislation, etc.?  Even if a section of a bill doesn't affect outlays or revenues and, therefore, seems to qualify under #1 to be excluded, is it integral to other parts of the legislation that do change outlays or revenues and, therefore, should be allowed to stay.

As I said, this is complicated and will be extremely controversial.  There are budget experts on both sides of the aisle and this is more of a judgment call than the application of a hard and fast rule.

So to Kevin Drum...if you think you have questions now, just wait.

I don't know if Harry Reid can find 60 votes to break a filibuster of a bill that contains a public option provision.  But if he can't — something that seems pretty likely — and he has to try the reconciliation route, we're in terra incognita.  And once we get to that point, the shape of the bill won't be a matter of negotiating skill, or liberal spine, or presidential leadership, or backroom deal cutting.  It will be a matter of the Senate parliamentarian tossing out provisions randomly based on his good faith understanding of the rules.

Call me gutless, call me chicken, call me whatever.  But that's a process that won't turn out well.  It's just not a realistic option to take a big, complex piece of legislation, toss out individual provisions here and there, and expect to have anything other than a complete hash of a bill that will end up so unworkable it can't pass at all.  Like it or not (and I don't!), we need 60 votes to get healthcare through the Senate.  The question is how best to do that.

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