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House Signals Readiness to Vote First

President Obama got a lot of attention for the letter he sent Congress on Tuesday. But a leader of the House Democrats made some news, too.

The leader was Majority Whip Steny Hoyer, who was speaking at his weekly press conference. As Politico has reported, discussion turned to a key procedural dispute between the two chambers: Would the House vote on the Senate bill right away, or would it wait until the Senate had approved amendments to the bill?

The House has been saying it wants the Senate to go first and, during the press conference, Hoyer reiterated that stance. But, instead of ruling out the alternative, as leadership has been doing for the last month, Hoyer merely said that going first would be "difficult." Then he explained:

Members want some assurance that those items they have problems with are, in fact, modified before they vote for the Senate bill. I don't know that it's impossible, but it's difficult.

Note the distinction: Waiting for the Senate to give assurance it will vote is not the same as waiting for the Senate to vote.

This isn't a shocker. On Sunday, during an interview on CBS "Face the Nation," Hoyer hinted at this shift. But his wording was vague, leaving the meaning of his statement ambiguous.

Not this time. A senior House aide confirms that Hoyer's use of the word "assurance" was intentional--i.e., that House leadership would be willing to hold its vote first as long as it felt confident the Senate would subsequently approve the amendments. Those amendments will go through the reconciliation process, where a simple majority is sufficient to pass legislation.

And what might qualify as "assurance"? The aide suggested the word of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid might be enough, although other staff on Capitol Hill still talk about the possibility of collecting the signatures of 51 Senate Democrats to a letter promising to pass the amendments.

If, indeed, the House agrees to vote on the Senate bill before the Senate takes up the amendments, it would remove a major obstacle to passing health care reform. Taking up the amendments first would have raised significant political and procedural hurdles. Among other things, it's difficult to write a bill to amend a law that hasn't passed yet.

All of this sets the stage for a Wednesday announcement at the White House, where, according to administration sources, Obama will call on Congress to give him an up-or-down vote on health care reform.

If the House goes first, that's exactly what will happen. And the prospects of that vote being a "yes" are getting better by the day.