Pass and Patch

by Jonathan Bernstein

It's really good that Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Robert Pear have figured out that the important unknowns for health care reform are swing voting Democrats in the House of Representatives, not Senators (and not Republicans).  There's some excellent reporting in their story, which is headed I guess to the front page of the Sunday Times.  This is a hard story to report, I would think. The odds are that the margin of difference is eventually going to be Democratic Members of the House who want the bill to pass, but want to vote against it.   The trick for Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama is to get enough of those reluctant Dems to actually vote yes.  Given that situation, it's highly unlikely that any reporter could really get much out of the swing voters, but Stolberg and Pear do a good job of attaching some names and stories to the uncertainty.

However, it would be nice if they got the basic facts of the parliamentary situation right.  As Steve Benen has taken to shouting, it's not true that the Democrats are passing health care reform through reconciliation; they're actually planning to pass two separate bills, the main body of health care reform that passed the Senate on Christmas Eve Day, and a second reconciliation "patch" with relatively small modifications in the first bill.

This isn't just semantic; the procedure, which I think everyone agrees is the only viable path, imposes a variety of constraints on the Democrats, and NYT readers deserve to have this explained to them properly.  So, for example, it is not really accurate to say that "the new version being pushed by Mr. Obama would strip out the House bill’s abortion restrictions in favor of Senate language that many of them consider unacceptable."  What's actually happening is that the House is passing the Senate bill (with the Senate abortion provision), and that changes in the abortion language wouldn't work as part of the second, "patch" legislation because of technical details of how reconciliation works.  The same thing is true about the structure of the national exchanges, and other some other provisions -- if it can't be done through reconciliation (because of the way that reconciliation works) then the Democrats are stuck with the Senate version, like it or not.  Provisions which can be dealt with in the patch, such as how the bill will be financed, will be changed to a House/Senate compromise.

Perhaps the Times doesn't want to confuse its readers with overly technical descriptions of parliamentary procedure, and I can understand that impulse, but in this case it's impossible to understand why some things are negotiable and some aren't without at least some reference to the rules that are shaping the Democrats' actions.

Moreover, and to return to one of my larger themes over the last six weeks, the Times should let its readers know that if this moves forward the Senate will only be voting on the reconciliation fix, which is basically all ice cream and no spinach.  Which is why the remaining action is all on the House side.

(Update: The Times has revised earlier versions of the story, and now does a better job of describing the process.)