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Senate Leaders Aim to Pass Reform Bill This Year

Janice Simmons, for HealthLeaders Media, November 11, 2009

President Obama has said he wants a healthcare reform bill on his desk by the end of the year. The Senate Democratic leadership is going to try to meet that goal, but it likely will face some major obstacles along the way.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D NV) on Tuesday night moved the Democrats out of the gate by starting the process to place the newly approved House reform bill (HR 3962) on the official Senate calendar. When placed on the calendar, a motion to proceed to start debate can be called the next legislative day.

However, since the Senate is off for the Veterans Day recess, Reid could file a motion to proceed as soon as Nov. 17 when the Senate returns. But Reid most likely will need an actual Senate healthcare reform bill that has been scored by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to move forward.

The Democrats are awaiting CBO action. Some have suggested that a CBO score could be available as early as Thursday or Friday. But even with the score, that does not mean that Democrats are out of the woods yet: They are likely to encounter a Republican filibuster on whether the Senate should even take up the bill in the first place.

Sixty votes are needed by Democrats to stop a filibuster in order to do what is known as invoking cloture—or putting the legislation in motion. Getting the 60 votes could be tricky: For instance, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), who has traditionally voted with the Democrats, has said he would support a filibuster with a bill that contains a public insurance option.

But even if they overcome the filibuster, the Democrats likely could encounter another Republican maneuver: Requirements that the text of the full bill be read on the Senate floor. Traditionally, members of the opposite party waive that formality because having a Senate clerk read the bill aloud could take many days.

Since Reid has promised senators that they will have a Thanksgiving recess, action would resume after Nov. 30. Unlike the House, which took one day to pass its bill, the Senate is expected to spend days—and most likely weeks—debating amendments. They likely would meet Monday through Friday during the first three weeks of December.

When asked about the timeframe yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, "The Senate is the place where the American people get to weigh in . . . where there are amendments on a whole broad array of issues."

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