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'Deem and pass': Democrats' new tactic for healthcare reform bill

House Democrats may use a procedure that allows them to 'deem' the Senate's healthcare reform bill passed without actually having to take a direct vote on it.

By Staff writer / March 16, 2010

From left, House Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., during a press conference about the healthcare reform bill, which may be voted on this week.

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The battle for healthcare reform is shifting from open-field policy fights to the obscure trenches of procedural warfare, as House Democrats look to pass the Senate bill without a direct vote.

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It’s a procedure called a self-executing rule, and if it is used, the Senate healthcare reform bill will be "deemed" to have passed the House whenever the House passes a package of fixes to the Senate bill.

Deeming is typically used as a convenience for issues that aren't controversial. But this week, “deem and pass” could also give members cover for the toughest and most historic vote of their careers.

Asked to comment on Republican claims that Democrats are using procedural “gymnastics” to avoid accountability, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a briefing on Monday: “It's about accountability of the insurance companies. It's about affordability for the middle class. It's about accessibility for many more people.”

“It's not about gymnastics alone – except if that's part of the wellness program that we have for our children,” she added.

Republicans assail plan

Republicans took to the floor of the House and Senate today to attack this strategy as a bid to hide a vote that most Democrats would rather not take. With 178 seats in the House – and four of 13 seats on the powerful Rules Committee – Republicans don’t have the votes to defeat this strategy, but they aim to make it as costly to Democrats as possible, especially those in tough races in 2010.

“Make no mistake, this will be a career-defining and a Congress-defining vote,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday. “Anyone who endorses this strategy will be forever remembered for trying to claim they didn’t vote for something they did. It will go down as one of the most extraordinary legislative sleights of hand in history.”

The procedure of one vote to both adopt a resolution and concur on a Senate amendment to a bill has been around since 1933. In March 1996, Republicans used a similar procedure to pass a controversial measure to raise the national debt limit – an issue they had used against Democrats
in their bid to take back the House in 1995.

In the House floor debate, Republicans called it a measure necessary “to expedite the consideration of this terribly, terribly important piece of legislation.”

“In fact, self-executing rules have been used over the years far more often by Republicans than by Democrats,” says Vincent Morris, a spokesman for Rep. Louise Slaughter (D) of New York, who chairs the House Rules committee.

Usually used for 'routine matters'

But all sides agree that it’s never been used on a measure this significant.

“It’s a procedure typically used on very routine matters,” says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

That Democrats are using it on healthcare “is evidence of the fact that they’re using every parliamentary device that they can to overcome the 60-vote threshold in the Senate and the defection of Democrats in the House opposed to [the Senate bill],” he adds.

On the House side, GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio announced today that Republicans plan to force a vote on a resolution requiring an up-or-down vote on the Senate health care bill. Even if the resolution fails, it will put Democrats on record in a way that can be used in 2010 election campaigns. “It shows you just how controversial this government takeover of healthcare has become that it takes a controversial maneuver just to vote on it,” he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Rep. David Dreier (R) of California, the top Republican on the House Rules Committee, is calling for the Rules Committee debate on
this issue to be televised.

“With the Democratic majority poised to turn the rules of the House on their head just to get their government takeover of healthcare through, we need cameras there to record it,” he said in a statement on Tuesday.

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