Despite mounting pressure to pass health care legislation through a parliamentary maneuver that would allow portions to be considered by an up-or-down vote, Democratic leadership in Congress insists that its best option remains regular order.
After several conservative Democrats in the Senate signaled their support for a Republican filibuster of reform that includes a public option for insurance coverage, a growing chorus of progressives called on Majority Leader Harry Reid to use reconciliation to get the provision passed.
The logic is simple: because the public option affects the budget it can be considered under reconciliation, which allows legislation to pass by a 51-vote majority.
The politics, however, are more complex. A Democratic Senate aide, speaking more candidly about strategy on condition of anonymity, said that the party still thinks its best shot to pass health care reform -- and, to a lesser extent, a public option -- remains through the use of normal parliamentary procedures.
For starters, leadership believes that more senators will be persuaded to vote for an entire health care package rather than individual bits and pieces. If Reid settles on the route of reconciliation, it would mean separating other aspects of reform, including caps on insurance premiums, the promotion of health and wellness and the elimination of pre-existing conditions as a reason for denying coverage.
"Right now the best thing we can do is to do everything at once, score everything at once, and build momentum for the bill," said the aide.
Maybe so. But such reasoning doesn't fly for advocates of reconciliation who argue that splitting up the health care bill actually makes political sense. The public option, after all, is the most hotly-contested part of the legislation. So an up-or-down vote may be the one avenue to ensure its passage. The private industry reforms, meanwhile, are largely non-controversial. So putting those provisions in a separate bill and passing them through regular order shouldn't be too difficult.
Again, however, aides insist that the devil is in the details. "The parliamentarian might tell us that, even if we have data on the public option being a budget utility, they might say we can't do it," warned the Senate Democratic aide. "Because you still have to create the exchange, you still have to have the force of law. And you may have to scale the public plan back for it to qualify."
There are other complications, added the aide. The House of Representatives, for instance, would have to go back to the drawing board after passing a full health care bill several weeks ago. And the concern on the Senate side of the aisle is that Speaker Nancy Pelosi could lose votes if she has to split up the legislation (though, if it meant ultimate passage, this seems unlikely).
The calendar presents another challenge. The White House has been pushing to get a bill to the president's desk before the new year. But reconciliation would likely push that time line back weeks, if not months, interfering with efforts to take up climate change and regulatory reform, running into the start of the 2010 campaign. "Where is the Senate floor time?" the aide asked.
Finally, the aide says, there is a question of votes. While leadership would have the flexibility to let ten Democratic senators vote against health care reform considered via reconciliation, there is enough parliamentary purism within the party to put its passage in doubt. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) has repeatedly spoken out against the use of reconciliation. On Tuesday, meanwhile, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told MSNBC that his preference was for regular order. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), one of the party's foremost champions of progressive reform, has stated a similar preference. Though, an aide tells the Huffington Post, "he has not made any statements about how he would vote on the bill if that were the case."
Most important of all, Reid himself has said rather definitively that he is "not using reconciliation." And an aide says that leadership has not had conversations with the Senate parliamentarian "in a while" to discuss what it can and can't do through reconciliation.
And yet, for all the hurdles, the push for Reid to go down this path just won't die. Jane Hamsher, a progressive health care activist who runs the site, FireDogLake, has put heavy pressure on the Majority Leader in recent days, writing: "It comes down to a simple question: will Harry Reid allow for majority rule? Or will he let corrupt members of his own caucus block a majority of the public and Congress who want a public option?"
Meanwhile, in an interview on Monday with the Huffington Post, Howard Dean insisted that, with the public option debate at a veritable stalemate, the use of reconciliation "looks better every time."
"Someone has to say, at some point, we need to pass a bill," concluded the former DNC Chair.