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Democrats looking hard at 51-vote shortcut for health reform

From Dana Bash, CNN
Congressional Democratic sources tell CNN they're still heavily considering reconciliation as a way to pass a health reform bill.
Congressional Democratic sources tell CNN they're still heavily considering reconciliation as a way to pass a health reform bill.
  • In usual legislative process, Senate must pass a bill with 60 votes or more
  • Shortcut known as reconciliation would allow bill to pass with 51 votes
  • Democratic aides are consulting with parliamentarians in House and Senate on process
  • Some Democrats worry they may not be able to muster 51 votes in reconciliation

Washington (CNN) -- Several senior congressional Democratic sources told CNN after Thursday's bipartisan summit that Democrats' plans on health care are not likely to differ much Friday from what they were Wednesday.

Although their public stance will be to let the dust from the summit settle, Democrats are actively looking into using the parliamentary shortcut known as reconciliation to get a health care bill to the president's desk, the sources said.

They are specifically exploring two issues: The ins and outs of how the complicated process could work, and whether the votes are there in the Senate and House to execute this strategy.

On the process, Democratic aides said they are consulting with the parliamentarians in the House and the Senate on what is possible. The general idea is for the House to pass the health bill that already has been approved by the Senate, and for a package of changes that mirror the president's plan to be passed through both chambers under reconciliation rules.

Under those rules, only 51 votes would be needed to advance the bill out of the Senate instead of the 60 needed under normal procedures.

One example of an open question for the parliamentarians is whether it is possible to pass the changes before the House votes on the Senate bill. Many House Democrats say that's the only way they would agree to the complicated scenario because they don't like the Senate bill and do not trust the Senate to follow through with a promise to pass the compromise package.

House Democrats would be likely to require an ironclad commitment from Senate Democrats and the president before agreeing to pass the changes first.

Another question Democrats have for the parliamentarians is more fundamental: What can they actually pass through the reconciliation process? It is supposed to be used only for legislation that affects taxes and the deficit.

Then there is the challenge of whether Democrats even have enough votes to pull off the complicated game plan.

Democratic sources say they still aren't completely sure there would be a 51-vote simple majority in the Senate to finalize health care with the parliamentary short cut.

Although Democratic leaders are already reminding the public that Republicans used reconciliation many times for their legislation in the past few decades, some Democrats may be concerned about a public backlash in the face of GOP accusations that they short-circuited the process.

The House may be an even tougher sell. House Democrats passed their version of health care with a slim majority and will be missing several votes because of vacancies.

The one Republican who voted for the House bill, Rep Joseph Cao, R-Louisiana, already says he'll be a "no" next time. There may also be some vulnerable Democrats facing tough races this year who decide to change their yes vote to no.

But the biggest obstacle to passing the Senate's health bill in the House and getting it to the president's desk may be abortion.

By some estimates, close to a dozen anti-abortion Democrats could vote against the Senate version of the bill because they say it's not strict enough in making sure taxpayer dollars are not spent on abortion procedures.