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On health-care reform, Republicans target Democrats' division over reconciliation

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 10, 2010; A03

As Republicans work to prevent a health-care bill from reaching President Obama, they are scrambling to exploit divisions between Democrats in the House and the Senate.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned House Democrats that they would be taking a colossal risk if they approved the Senate's version of health-care legislation before the Senate had acted to remove some of the bill's most contentious provisions. Now that Democrats have lost their supermajority in the Senate, some variation of this delicate two-step process is the only way a health-care reform bill can become law.

"House Democrats will have to decide whether they want to trust the Senate to fix their political problems," McConnell said. He listed perks that Senate Democrats won for Nebraska, Louisiana, Florida and labor unions; House members insist that all must be removed through a separate "fixes" bill under special budget reconciliation rules.

"They will be voting, when they pass the Senate bill, to endorse the Cornhusker Kickback, the Louisiana Purchase, the Gator-aid, the closed-door deal, the special deal for the unions, which may or may not bother any Democrats, I don't know," McConnell said.

Moving the bill under reconciliation is appealing to Democrats because such legislation cannot be filibustered, although it would be vulnerable to parliamentary challenges. The sequence in which the Senate bill and the package of fixes would move is one of the key unresolved issues, much to the consternation of undecided House Democrats. They would prefer to pass the reconciliation bill first and force the Senate to accept their fixes before the House takes up the Senate bill.

But reconciliation rules seem to indicate that the House will have to pass the Senate bill first. Depending on how the Senate parliamentarian rules, Obama may even have to sign the legislation into law before the Senate can consider the House fixes.

Democratic leaders huddled Tuesday night in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office for the first of what will probably be many strategy sessions, as Congress tries to complete the year-long health-care reform debate before the Easter recess begins March 26.

Participants said that once the Congressional Budget Office delivers a final cost estimate on the fixes bill, possibly this week, Democratic leaders would begin lining up House and Senate votes.

"We have more information to go forward, but we have more questions," Pelosi (D-Calif.) said after the meeting, adding, "We're going to pass a bill."

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) raised the House Democrats' worst-case scenario: hurrying to pass the Senate bill by the White House's deadline of March 18, only to watch the fixes stall in the Senate -- leaving House Democrats on the record as supporting the side deals.

"What the president is doing is asking House Democrats to hold hands, jump off a cliff and hope Harry Reid catches them," Alexander said, referring to the Senate majority leader.

Democratic leaders brushed off whether the House would meet the deadline, set by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. Obama is scheduled to leave March 18 for a trip to Indonesia and Australia. "None of us has mentioned the 18th, other than Mr. Gibbs," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday.

The president will travel to the St. Louis area Wednesday for his second health-care forum this week. Officials said Obama will voice support for bipartisan legislation designed to root out fraud and waste in the nation's health-care system.

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