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Avoid This Contingency Plan

If all goes as planned, next weekend the House of Representatives will vote on health care reform. That much we know.

But on what actual bill or bills will the House vote? And what's likely to happen next? Those are critical questions and, on Saturday, several sources said that no final decision had been made.

Broadly speaking, the House has to do two things next weekend. It must pass the Senate's health care bill, a measure that will do most of the work of reform: Setting up the exchanges, allocating money for subsidies, coming up with revenue and savings to offset those new expenditures, and putting in place the delivery reforms. If the House did nothing but pass that bill, and the president signed it, we'd have a new health care system.

But, of course, the House wants to do something else, too. It wants to tweak the subsidies and taxes in the Senate bill, while removing some of the infamous deals Senate leadership made back in the fall. To do that, the House has to pass a set of amendments, which must then go back to the Senate for approval in that chamber.

With me so far? Good. Here's where it gets a little complicated. The House has leeway for how it debates and votes on those two bills. And according to the sources--which include a senior House leadership aide--three options are on the table:

1) The House would vote on the two bills separately. Upon passage, the Senate bill would be ready for the president's signature. The amendments, meanwhile, would go to the Senate for approval there. Call this the "Schoolhouse Rock" option.

2) The House would vote once. The vote would be on the amendments. But with that vote, the House would "deem" the Senate bill passed. (Yes, it can do that.) At that point, the main bill would be ready to go to the president for his signature, while the amendments would go to the Senate for consideration there.

3) The House would vote once, just like in option (2). But in this case, the House would deem the Senate bill passed only after the Senate had approved the amendments. Once the Senate approved the amendments, then--and only then--could the main bill go to the president for signature.

As I've said before, the point of holding one vote rather than two is to spare House members an explicit vote on the Senate bill. And, as I've said before, that seems utterly pointless to me. Come November, the distinction between voting for a bill directly and voting for a bill indirectly, via "deeming," isn't going to make much difference.

Still, the more important issue here is whether the House goes with option (3) and makes enactment of health care reform contingent upon the Senate passing those amendments. Some House Democrats would prefer this, because they don't trust the Senate to approve the changes. And while most of my sources think the House is unlikely to settle on this approach, the fact that it's still under discussion (or was as of Saturday afternoon) is a bit unnerving.

With option (1) or (2), next weekend's vote would be the decisive one, since it would mean reform is just one presidential signature away from becoming law. And, at that point, only good things would happen. Obama would hold a signing ceremony, the media would dwell on the historic accomplishment, and the Democrats would likely enjoy a boost in the polls. The political conversation would probably move on to another topic and, most likely, conservative activists would too. Republicans would have little incentive to fight the amendments; after all, they'd be in the position of defending the Cornhusker kickback and higher benefits taxes.

By contrast, if the House were to insist reform not become law until the Senate passes the amendments, the Republicans--and their base--would have every incentive to keep fighting, since by doing so they'd be fighting reform itself. If nothing else, they could drag out the process by attempting to introduce a series of their own amendments. Yes, that would be amendments to the amendments--and the Republicans could on like that for quite a while. It would mean an extra week or two, at least, of headlines about legislative wrangling, which would alienate voters who are simply tired of this saga and want to hear about jobs. It would also mean an extra week or two for some unexpected, unthinkable political calamity to strike. It'd be possible, still, to end up with no legislation at all.

Admittedly, by allowing the Senate bill to become law right away, House Democrats would be taking a risk: It's possible the Senate might not pass the changes to the Senate bill. But that risk exists no matter what the House does. By making sure the Senate bill is ready for presidential signature after that first vote, the House would be guaranteeing that some version of health care reform becomes law--and increasing the likelihood it's the version they prefer.

Update: Jonathan Bernstein doesn't mince words:

Look, this is nuts.  If health care reform passes and then turns out to be unpopular, there's no way that Members of the House will be spared because they didn't vote directly for the Senate bill.  ... If Republicans believe that running against the Nelson deal is a good idea, they're going to do it, regardless of how the House structures the vote -- indeed, regardless of whether the House votes at all ... Meanwhile, if they do structure a complex process, they can be sure that Republicans are going to blast the process -- and, if the Dems try to avoid separate votes, a lot of editorial writers and other makers of conventional wisdom are going to buy the GOP line. ...

Democrats are committed to this bill.  They're committed if the bill dies, they're committed if the bill passes, and they're committed whichever way they structure their votes.  Sure, they might as well repeal all those evil deals (which, it's worth remembering, are probably responsible for getting the bill this far, and at least in my view are a reasonable cost of doing business -- not that any Democrat should ever 'fess up to that particular reality in public).  But as soon as the bills pass, the spin war changes -- and it would be a very foolish move to make the first step of that spin war one that will look bad to the Broders of the world.  The Democrats should just take the votes, and focus on the things they really want to sell about this bill, which are the immediate and long-term benefits for the American people.