I am lowering from 60% to 50% my projection for the success of comprehensive health care reform.

  1. Pass a partisan comprehensive bill through the House and through the regular Senate process with 60, leading to a law; (was 40% -> 30%)
  2. Pass a partisan comprehensive bill through the House and through the reconciliation process with 51 Senate Democrats, leading to a law; (steady at 20%)
  3. Fall back to a much more limited bill that becomes law; (was 20% -> 15%)
  4. No bill becomes law this Congress. (was 20% -> 35%)

I think there is zero chance a bill makes it to the President’s desk before 2010. If a bill were to become law, I would anticipate completion in late January or even February.

The next few days

Later today Senate Majority Leader Reid is expected to release his version of the health care reform bill along with a CBO score. Senate Democrats are scheduled to meet (“caucus”) late this afternoon. My sources tell me that most Senate Democrats do not know what is in the Reid amendment. Release of the Reid amendment and the caucus meeting are two pivot points that can significantly shape prospects for the bill.

Leader Reid will be asking all 58 Senate Democrats, along with Independents Lieberman and Sanders, to vote for cloture on the motion to proceed this Friday or Saturday. Here is how I would expect the process to play out:

  • Today: Leader Reid moves to proceed to an unrelated House-passed tax bill. He then files a cloture motion (signed by 16 Senators) on the motion to proceed.
  • Friday: The Senate votes on cloture on the motion to proceed. If Reid gets 60 votes to invoke cloture, then 30 hours of post-cloture debate begins. That takes us to Saturday afternoon.
  • Saturday: There’s an up-or-down (majority) vote on the motion to proceed. Assuming cloture was invoked Friday, this vote is a gimmee. It might even be a voice vote that does not require Senators to be present.
  • After the motion to proceed is adopted on Saturday, the Senate would be debating the unrelated House bill. Reid would then offer his new proposal as a complete substitute amendment for the text of that bill, sometimes colloquially referred to as the shell bill. Leader Reid’s proposal would be referred to as the Reid substitute. You can think of it as the Reid bill.
  • The amendment (probably approaching 2,000 pages) needs to be read in full. I assume Leader Reid would ask for unanimous consent to dispense with the reading of his amendment. I would then expect a Republican (McConnell? Coburn?) to object.
  • Saturday – Monday?: The Senate clerks would take turns reading the entire Reid substitute amendment aloud.
  • Monday: The amendment would have been read, and the Senate would adjourn until Monday the 30th.
  • Monday, Nov. 30: The Senate would convene and begin consideration of the Reid substitute.

Advantages for Leader Reid of starting now:

  • If he gets 60 votes on cloture on the motion to proceed, he has a win going into the Thanksgiving recess, having held his entire party together. This creates positive momentum.
  • He allows himself more time in December for debate and amendments.
  • In December he is inoculated against process arguments about having had insufficient time to read and understand his amendment. By the 30th the amendment would have been public for 12 days.

Disadvantages for Reid of starting now:

  • A Friday cloture vote would break the 72-hour transparency commitment he made to his moderates. This might cause a bump or two within his caucus, but he can solve it by delaying the cloture vote until Saturday night.
  • He may be rolling the dice on the upcoming cloture vote. I have been surprised that some of his 60 have been willing to leverage their votes on the motion to proceed to push for substantive concessions. It is highly unusual to challenge your own party leader on the motion to proceed.
    • Q: Does he already know he has 60 for a Friday (or Saturday) cloture vote, or is he betting that he can round up 60?
    • Q: Do some of those 60 votes depend on substantive policy that they have not yet seen? If so, the substantive and mechanical challenges of rounding up the votes by Friday are significant.
  • He is exposing his members to a lot of risk over the Thanksgiving recess. They will spend 9-10 days at home being hammered on a bill that many/most of them may have not yet seen. Imagine a constituent asking you, “Why did you vote for [cloture on the motion to proceed to] the Reid bill when it contains _________?” In reaction, a nervous Senate Democrat might reply, “I agree with you. I just voted to start the process, but I won’t vote for cloture in December unless that is fixed.” Winning the battle this week may make it harder for him to win the war in the third week of December.
  • Constituencies have more time to analyze the bill, organize their campaigns, and lobby Members. This makes December more difficult.

Nevertheless, the odds favor Reid invoking cloture on the motion to proceed this Friday or Saturday. If that falls apart, then Reid and the bill are in trouble, because Democrats will be going home in chaos, and could not complete Senate floor action in December.

It is also interesting that Leader Reid is using an unrelated House bill as the shell, rather than the House bill. I am fairly certain that is because some of his members don’t want to take any vote even indirectly related to the House-passed bill. This is an indication of overall strategic weakness and substantive differences between the House and Senate.

Looking forward to December

Assume that Leader Reid is successful and the Senate spends three six-day weeks in December debating and amending the Reid substitute amendment. I would expect that as the third week approaches, Reid would begin to signal that the Senate has worked hard on the bill and needs to bring debate to a close. Around the middle of week three, he would file a cloture motion on his substitute amendment, with the cloture vote happening on or near Friday, December 18th.

That vote, cloture on the Reid substitute, is the vote. If Reid can get 60, then the Senate will pass a bill and the probability of a signed law goes way up. If he cannot get 60, the path is murky, but his chances for success go down.

My projections therefore depend heavily on my guess about that vote. It is nearly impossible to predict because you can tell two equally strong stories that point to opposite results:

  • Pointing in favor of cloture on the Reid substitute: Independent of the policy substance and the home-state politics, how many Senate Democrats (and Independents) have the guts to vote no on cloture on December 18th after receiving a phone call from (or having an Oval Office visit with) the President? I can think of only one for certain. 60 votes of support for this bill could results from Democratic party loyalty to and fear of the President.
  • Pointing against cloture on the Reid substitute: Were this not the President’s top priority in year one, this bill would have died weeks ago. The politics are a sure loser for almost any moderate Democrat, and the substantive attacks are effective and brutal. Like most, I expect the Reid amendment will lean left, causing serious policy concerns about higher taxes, higher premiums, government interference, more spending and long-term deficit risk for Democrats who think of themselves as fiscally conservative. In addition, most voters are focused instead on the poor labor market picture.

I have lowered my projection of Leader Reid succeeding for three reasons:

  1. Pretty much everything has to go right for him to win on cloture in mid-December. He has no more wiggle room on the schedule, and new intra-Democrat policy fights are popping up.
  2. I think his members are going to get beat up about health care and jobs over Thanksgiving recess, then return to Washington to face another bad jobs day Friday the 4th.
  3. If moderates demand large substantive concessions for their votes, liberals like Senators Rockefeller and Boxer may refuse. They may tell Reid they will oppose cloture if the bill moves toward the center, and instead advocate abandoning regular order and starting a clean reconciliation process in January. House liberals might join this effort.


  • Does Leader Reid already know that he has 60 votes for cloture on the motion to proceed?
  • Will the substance of his amendment affect that vote count?
  • Will he include a payroll tax increase in his amendment, as is rumored?
  • How badly will his moderate members get beat up over Thanksgiving break?

And when we get to mid-December,

  • Will he have 60 votes for cloture on the Reid substitute?
  • Suppose he knows he has 57-59 votes, with 1-3 undecided. Will he gamble?
  • Suppose he knows he does not have 60, so he knows he would lose a cloture vote right before leaving town. Does he have the vote anyway?
  • If he loses a cloture vote, what happens in January, and who has the whip hand in deciding?

Thursday morning update: Leader Reid did not file cloture on the motion to proceed yesterday. Assuming he does today, slip the above schedule by one day, with the cloture vote to occur Saturday.

(photo credit: Democrats.Senate.Gov video clip)