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October 20, 2017

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Just getting health care bill to floor will be tough for Reid

History indicates reform will be slowed by the quirks of the Senate

Harry Reid

Harry Reid

To understand just how difficult it is to get anything done in the Senate, a dose of history can help.

Long before President Lyndon B. Johnson became champion of civil rights, he was during his early years as majority leader a key Senate architect in obstructing civil rights legislation that many of his fellow Democrats desperately wanted to pass.

Historian Robert Caro, in “Master of the Senate,” recounts one episode in 1956 in which Johnson orchestrated an elaborate floor ruse to kill a civil rights bill as it arrived from the House.

Civil rights supporters knew that if the bill was referred on arrival to the Senate Judiciary Committee, it would die at the hands of Southern segregationists. Sen. Herbert Lehman of New York was stationed as sentry at the door to make sure that did not happen.

Knowing their strategy, Johnson installed the fastest talker he could find to preside over the chamber that day — Sen. J. Lister Hill of Alabama.

When the bill from the House was presented to the Senate, the fast-talking Hill asked if there was any objection to sending the bill on to committee.

Lehman was momentarily distracted.

Hearing no objection, Hill said the bill would be referred to Judiciary.

“This was the dirtiest trick Johnson ever played,” a top civil rights advocate would say 40 years later, Caro wrote.

After the House passed the landmark health care bill last weekend, its momentum seemed to fill Washington. Never before, in all the decades of health care debate, had a bill gone so far.

Eyes turned to the Senate to see what would happen next. There they met a blank stare.

The Senate rules — namely the ability to filibuster — ensure that the Senate moves more slowly.

Without the consent of 60 senators, a supermajority of the chamber, any senator can object by filibustering to halt a bill. With Republicans nearly ossified in their opposition to the largely Democratic health care reform bill Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is crafting, the majority leader needs every vote at his disposal from his 60-senator caucus.

The Founding Fathers designed it this way, calling the Senate the place where legislation goes to cool after the heated populist debates of the House.

In modern times, the Senate is called the place where legislation goes to die.

(Caro notes the filibuster was considered “ ‘the gravedigger in the Senate graveyard of Civil Rights.’ ”)

All this is helpful in understanding why Reid’s next goal in the health care debate can appear so infuriatingly incremental to those who want reform passed this year, including President Barack Obama.

Reid hopes, by the end of the week, before senators break for Thanksgiving, to open the health care debate on the Senate floor.

That objective appears stunningly modest in the hyperbole-fueled world of Washington politics.

Reid’s goal is to be able to put on the floor what is accurately, if embarrassingly, called in procedural lingo the Motion to Proceed: If the motion passes, the Senate can proceed to the bill.

Now Republicans, at least one, will most likely object, causing a filibuster. To overcome that opposition, Reid must secure 60 votes.

To be clear, to even start the Senate floor debate on the health care reform bill, which has been talked about all year, there must be a vote.

Reid, ever the obsessive vote counter, believes he is about there, even though some dissenting Democrats, including Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, continue to withhold their support for the procedural step until they see the actual bill and its financial analysis.

Reid has been trying, in endless conversations on the phone and in person, to impress upon his senators that they should allow the debate to begin. Once the debate starts, the majority leader reasons, there will be many amendments — hours of daily debate that will stretch until Christmastime.

Just let the debate begin, Reid asks.

And what a debate it promises to be.

The Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, hinted at a forthcoming amendment onslaught. “There are going to be a lot of amendments on a lot of subjects. We’re going to spend a number of weeks on this, reminiscent of important Senate debates in the recent past,” McConnell said last week.

“The Senate is a place where the American people get to weigh in, where there are amendments on a whole broad array of issues. And we will have lots of amendments.”

Democrats, too, will have amendments on the range of details in what, for the House, was an approximately 2,000-page bill.

But that is getting ahead of things. Before there are amendments there must be an agreement to proceed to the bill. Reaching this seemingly modest goal would be an achievement unparalleled in the history of the health care debate.

Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin expressed as much when he said, with a hint of wistfulness in his voice last week, he hopes to hold a floor vote on the procedural measure before the Thanksgiving break.

“Oh, that would be a terrific outcome,” he sighed, “if we could get to the Motion to Proceed, that vote, before we leave.”

As the long year of health care reform continues, those wondering what will happen next watch and wait for the Senate. There, the world moves at its own pace.

As Caro notes, after that early civil rights bill was shuffled off to the Judiciary Committee for its forgotten fate, one of the Senate’s civil rights leaders, Sen. Paul Douglas of Illinois, rushed into the chamber. He approached the dais, where Hill was still presiding, and asked what had happened.

“Paul, my dear boy,” the Alabaman said, “we move in accordance with the time-honored rules and procedure of the Senate.”