Senate Parliamentarian throws a curveball

SENATE PARLIAMENTARIAN THROWS A CURVEBALL…. House Dems have a fear: they can pass the Senate health care bill, only to see the Senate blow off the reconciliation budget fix agreed to by the leadership. In effect, the House is afraid the Senate will say, “We promise to approve the fix after you pass the bill,” and then after the bill is passed, the Senate will say, “Sucker! We’ve changed our minds.”

To overcome these fears, the House has taken up a variety of ideas — insisting that the Senate approve the budget fix first, passing the bill and the fix at the same time, voting on a self-executing rule (don’t ask), etc.

According to Senate Republicans, the chamber’s parliamentarian is throwing cold water on the alternatives. If Dems are going to fix a law, they’re going to have to make it law first.

The Senate Parliamentarian has ruled that President Barack Obama must sign Congress’ original health care reform bill before the Senate can act on a companion reconciliation package, senior GOP sources said Thursday.

The Senate Parliamentarian’s Office was responding to questions posed by the Republican leadership. The answers were provided verbally, sources said.

Now, it’s certainly possible that Senate Republicans are lying about this — they’re not exactly a truth-oriented bunch — but this doesn’t seem like the kind of thing they’d make up out of whole cloth. We also don’t know exactly what question the parliamentarian was answering, and the details matter.

But let’s say the report is right. What does this mean in practical terms? If the leadership can pull together the 216 votes needed to support health care reform, it would pass two bills: (1) the Senate reform bill; and (2) the budget fix. The former would go to the White House for the president’s signature, and then the Senate could approve the latter and send it to the White House to complete the process.

What’s wrong with this? Nothing, really, except the House has grown so distrustful of the Senate, some members would consider killing health care reform altogether rather than counting on the Senate to follow through and pass the budget fix.

And while I realize the House’s concerns are genuine, killing health reform over this would be a tragedy. Sure, there are tensions between the chambers — a common phenomenon over the last 200+ years — but there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to think the Senate would promise to pass a budget fix, and then decide not to. Indeed, the leadership is not only putting this in writing, let’s also not forget that senators want to pass the budget fix — it makes changes the senators themselves want to see — and have no incentive to pull a fast one on the House.

We know the upper chamber can obviously be dysfunctional, but Senate Dems aren’t insane — why on earth would they want a budget fix, ask the House to pass a budget fix, declare their support for a budget fix, promise to pass a budget fix, and then decide not to vote for it? Knowing that it would make all future negotiations between the chambers completely impossible?

I get that the House is nervous, but this fear doesn’t make sense.

At this point, not that much has changed. As of this morning, the House had two bills to pass — the Senate reform bill and the reconciliation budget fix. As of now, that’s still the case. The only change is the order in which things will unfold.

Word from the parliamentarian, in other words, is only bad news if House Dems allow it to be bad news.