The White House signing ceremony is typically the climax of a reform drive – a time for to mark a historic achievement in a dignified setting.
But in the case of the historic health care reform bill that President Obama signs Tuesday, it’s only a prelude to one of the most arcane spectacles that American politics has to offer.
Next on the to-do list is running a gauntlet of Senate precedents and rules to “fix” through the process called reconciliation the bill that Mr. Obama will sign.
It's a process almost certain to make Sunday's House debate look as though it was played out in fast-forward – a bacchanal of vote after vote, often running past midnight and occasionally into the morning hours.
In theory, none of it is needed.
Once Obama signs the bill Tuesday, it will be the law of the land, no matter what happens next. But few House Democrats like the bill Obama will sign into law. The fixes are the only way that Democratic leaders could get House Democrats to pass the bill Sunday, and Senate majority leader Harry Reid has vowed to push them through.
The catch is that Democrats no longer have a filibuster-proof majority, meaning that they'll have to pass the fixes on a simple majority vote – and that can only be done through reconciliation.
The long, slow slog of reconciliation
Reconciliation will require the fixes to be pulled apart and passed measure by measure, and by the rules of reconciliation each measure has to serve the purpose of cutting the federal budget. This process – pulling apart the bill, determining if each component qualifies according to the rules of reconciliation, and then passing them – could begin Wednesday.
And it will take a long time. A lot of consulting of the rules. And votes. Lots and lots of votes.
For weeks now, Republicans and Democrats have been consulting with the Senate parliamentarian to prepare floor strategy for the 20 hours of debate, then a series of marathon, open-ended votes – dubbed vote-a-ramas – until senators can no longer stand.
These unpredictable sessions often include dozens of back-to-back votes running all through the night. One vote-a-rama for the Natural Gas Policy Act of 1977 included 81 votes over three days with one session running through 7 a.m.
But the key to the process is how the Senate parliamentarian will rule on procedural motions. Senate Republicans last week said they had found a “fatal point of order” that could sink the House fixes. The argument turns on whether the proposed fixes change revenues to Social Security, contrary to Senate rules on reconciliation. Senate Parliamentarian Alan Frumin heard presentations from both sides Monday.
“This is a cynical last gasp effort by desperate Republicans to derail House passage of the Senate bill,” said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate majority leader Harry Reid.
“Frumin has not ruled in their favor and they know it. Yet they have been publicly asserting that Frumin believes the bill is flawed for the last week or so,” he adds.
In the runup to Sunday's vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told wavering Democrats that she had assurances that the Senate would pass the fixes. Senator Reid told House Democrats that he had a letter backed by a majority of Senate Democrats pledging to pass the House fixes.
But Republicans say that to try to move a new social entitlement of historic scale and scope through the Senate this way – without a single Republican vote – violates Senate traditions. “The historical importance of the body and its traditions is what is being decided this weekend,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California on Sunday.
Both Republicans and Democrats head into this critical last week of debate and voting on health care reform in a spirit of intense partisanship, unusual even by recent standards.
“It represents a calculated risk on both sides,” says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “On the Democratic side the risk is that this reform will ultimately be accepted by the American people; and on the Republican side, that there will continue to be widespread disenchantment ad provide the basis to repeal, after they regain control of the Congress.”