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House Democrats Weigh Obscure Tactic To Pass Health Care

On Capitol Hill, the war of words over health care continues to escalate, as the House heads for a final vote. Only now some of the words are getting a little obscure. Instead of arguing over health insurance or costs, lawmakers are now squabbling over concepts like “deeming” and “self-executing rules.”

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At issue is the possibility that the House will not take a separate up-or-down vote on the health bill the Senate passed in December. Instead, it might package that vote with a procedural vote to lay out the terms of the debate on a second health bill. That bill will make modifications to the Senate bill that will make the bill more to House Democrats’ liking.

Either way, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters, the House will pass the Senate bill. “We’re going to vote on a bill and on a rule which will provide for the result that if a majority are for it, will adopt the Senate bill,” he said. Technically, the procedure he’s talking about is called a self-executing rule. If it passes, it will deem the Senate bill passed as well.

Skirting A Filibuster

Republicans are furious about just the thought of it. “The ‘Slaughterhouse’ rule insults the intelligence of the American people and tramples on the Constitution of the United States of America,” Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) told a rally of Tea Party activists in front of the Capitol.

Republicans are calling it the Slaughterhouse rule after New York Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter, who chairs the House Rules Committee. She’s in charge of getting the health overhaul package to the floor. So far, the bill with the changes to the Senate bill hasn’t been unveiled. That’s the bill that will be considered under the “budget reconciliation” process, which allows it to skirt a filibuster in the Senate.

A Tactic That’s Been Used Before

But despite Republican claims that such parliamentary gymnastics as reconciliation and self-executing rules are somehow in violation of House rules or rare, neither is the case, says congressional scholar Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution.

“On the self-executing rule, Republicans in their last Congress that they controlled, the 109th, used it 36 times; the Democrats, in the next Congress they controlled, used it 49 times,” Mann said.

And in many cases, Mann says, they were on some pretty major bills. “The reauthorization of the Patriot Act, the Tax Relief Reconciliation Act, the Deficit Control Conference Report; all kinds of major measures have been approved through self-executing rules, which means the House votes indirectly rather than separately on these measures.”

The rise in the use of such techniques has grown in concert with the rise in overall partisanship in the House, he says. “Since the minority party, whether Democratic or Republican, believes its job is to defeat the majority party and get good votes to use in the upcoming campaign, the majority resorts to tactics that provide a little indirection, a little insulation from that, to make it a little bit easier for their members to support a measure.”

House Majority leader Hoyer, however, told reporters he thinks in the end what matters most is what’s in the bill. Like health insurance for 31 million more people and a start on reining in health care costs. Not how it becomes law. “Process is interesting, particularly to all of us around this room,” he said. “But in the final analysis, what is interesting to the American public is what did this bill do for them and their families to make their lives more secure.”

But in the meantime, it seems Democrats will use whatever the rules allow to get the votes they need.

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