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Senate has some work left on health-care bill

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 22, 2010; A12

Leaving a meeting of House Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) walked off quietly Saturday afternoon with a few aides but was stopped in his tracks by an unfamiliar face.

"Senator, you don't know me. I'm Al Green from Texas," the man said. "I appreciate you coming here. You're doing a magnificent job under difficult circumstances. Somebody has to tell you that."

Reid quickly acknowledged that he knew Green. What was such high praise from a House Democrat, and he thanked Green profusely. For Reid, the next week of legislative action will either culminate with similar words of praise from the rest of the House Democratic caucus or end in another bitter House-Senate feud of the kind that has typified the past year.

The year-long battle over reshaping more than one-sixth of the U.S. economy will now move across the Capitol. The House's approval of the Senate's version of health-care legislation, which President Obama expects to sign into law swiftly, also will send to the Senate a 153-page package of amendments to that legislation. There, Democrats will implement an obscure, but commonly used, reconciliation rule to try to pass the revisions based on a simple majority and avoid a Republican filibuster.

A small group of senators and staffers is expected to gather Monday with the Senate parliamentarian to determine whether a tax on high-cost insurance policies would affect the Social Security trust fund, and whether that would violate prohibitions against altering Social Security through the reconciliation process. Republicans say a ruling on their side could short-circuit the process, but Democrats are confident about their provision.

Assuming that hurdle is cleared, 20 hours of debate will begin Tuesday, according to senior Democratic and Republican aides, concluding Wednesday night or Thursday morning. Republicans expect to object to provisions that they think violate rules that require all reconciliation legislation to deal with federal revenue. Using the parliamentarian, Alan Frumin, as his guide, Vice President Biden, in his capacity as Senate president, will issue rulings on these points of order. If Republicans do not approve of Frumin's advice, they can try to override the ruling but that requires 60 votes, making it almost impossible for them to succeed, because they have 41 members in their caucus.

If Frumin sides with Republicans on a particular provision, it would be dropped from the amendments bill -- unless Democrats can find 60 votes to override the ruling. That would be unlikely, given the unified opposition of Republicans to the Democratic bill. Such a ruling would not doom the legislation, but it would force the Senate to return the measure to the House for another vote.

During debate, Republicans are allowed to offer an unlimited number of amendments, but those are set aside for a voting marathon after the debate. Senior aides expect the "Vote-a-Rama" to begin Thursday, and Republicans expect to force only enough votes to last through Saturday at the latest.

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