Saturday night live in the Senate

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE IN THE SENATE…. As of late yesterday, we have a reasonably strong sense of what to expect in the Senate with regards to the health care debate. We don’t yet know how it’s going to turn out, but at least the process seems clear.

In fact, the leadership struck a couple of deals yesterday that make the process pretty straightforward — the chamber will debate the bill tomorrow, and then vote on the motion to proceed. If there are 60 votes, reform will proceed to another round of debate. If there aren’t 60 votes, the entire initiative is in real trouble.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Thursday afternoon set the procedural wheels in motion for a crucial vote on a major health care reform bill Saturday night at 8 p.m. and scored a coup by apparently persuading Republicans to abandon their plans to have the entire 2,074-page bill read aloud on the Senate floor.

Speaking on the floor of the Senate on Thursday afternoon, Reid filed a motion to limit debate, or invoke cloture, on the motion to proceed to a House-passed tax bill that will serve as a shell for the $848 billion Senate health care measure that he unveiled Wednesday.

In doing so, Reid also asked for and received the consent of Republicans to avoid more votes this week as well as a threatened, lengthy reading of the Senate bill. Reid’s move means the Senate will wrap up work Saturday and avoid coming into session next week.

Before yesterday’s agreement, Republicans were going to force a full reading of every word of the bill, which would in turn lead to another procedural vote around 2 a.m. on Monday morning. Now, none of that will be necessary — GOP senators will spend all day tomorrow trashing the idea of reforming the dysfunctional health care system, leading up to an 8 p.m. cloture vote. If the motion is approved, the chamber will break for Thanksgiving and return a week from Monday.

Why not hold the vote on the motion to proceed sooner? Because the leadership agreed to have the bill publicly available for 72 hours before the first vote, and Saturday night at 8 p.m. will be exactly 72 hours after the legislation (pdf) was posted online.

With the process question resolved, attention now shifts to assembling 60 votes. If Harry Reid didn’t think he could corral the supermajority needed, he probably wouldn’t have scheduled tomorrow night’s vote. But as of now, it’s still unclear if the necessary support is there.

A handful of on-the-fence Dems made clear that they would support the motion to proceed, including Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.). Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) has signaled he’s likely to vote with the majority tomorrow night, but it’s not definite. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) was supposed to announce her intentions yesterday, but didn’t. Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) hasn’t said much of anything, and remains a point of concern.

And just to be clear, this isn’t a vote on the bill; we’re talking about a vote to begin a debate on the bill. It’s still astounding to me that three Senate Democrats are reluctant to support a routine procedural measure that would simply allow the chamber to talk about health care reform, and consider changes to the bill.