By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
The healthcare endgame will involve a game of legislative ping-pong between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who have separately indicated the strategy they intend to use to pass the final bill is intended to box out not only the Republicans, but some Democrats who may have last-minute objections. Pelosi and Reid have apparently determined that private negotiations between leading Democrats on Capitol Hill, coupled with input from the White House, is the only way to write a final bill that can pass both chambers and that President Barack Obama will sign. This process for moving forward—know as "ping pong"—eliminates the need for the kind of formal negotiations that C-SPAN's Brian Lamb recently requested be made open to the media.
Those requests, by the way, have been rejected by Pelosi and Reid.
As reported Monday in The Hill, senior Democratic aides said the decision to go with ping-pong had been made "out of concern that Republicans in both the House and the Senate would employ a series of procedural delaying tactics."
The first set began formally with healthcare meetings held Tuesday at the White House. Unlike a game of real ping-pong, however, no one can be sure who is playing because the matches are being held in secret. Once the negotiators agree on language that all parties involved can live with and Speaker Pelosi believes she has the votes to pass it, the legislation will be brought to the floor of the House for a vote.
Senior aides believe this will be done without giving members the opportunity to offer any amendments, which could mean trouble if the final version includes the weaker "Nelson" language on abortion funding from the Senate bill rather than the "airtight" prohibitions included in the earlier House bill over Pelosi's objections.
If the legislation is approved in the House it would then go to the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid would be able to bring it up immediately. This second set begins, say several top Hill staffers, with Reid "filling the amendment tree by himself," thereby making it impossible for any of his Senate colleagues—Democrat or Republican—to offer language that changes in substance any part of the bill.
If the Senate made any changes, the bill would have to then go back to the House in a third volley. The House would then have to pass it again and send it back to the Senate, hence the "ping-pong."
If the Senate adopts the House bill—and with Reid blocking all substantive amendments, it is hard to imagine the Senate voting the final version down—it would then go to the White House for Obama's signature. Game over.
This closed-door process is a stunning display of political hardball mixed with considerable amounts of hubris that has even some Democrats complaining. U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, who is challenging Arlen Specter for the Democratic Senate nomination in Pennsylvania, Thursday fired a blast at congressional leaders and the White House over the way the whole business has been handled.
"They said it would be transparent. Why isn't it?" Sestak said in a meeting with editors and reporters at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "At times, I find the caucus is a real disappointment. We aren't transparent, not just to the public but at times to the members."
Sestak was in part referring to the at least eight times candidate Barack Obama promised while running for president to put all the healthcare negotiations on C-SPAN but also to the way in which the leadership—all of whom occupy safe seats, at least as far as the House is concerned—is using the ping-pong process to shut the congressional rank and file out of the final deliberations.
The decline in public support for healthcare reform is no doubt being fueled by cynicism over the process under which is has been debated. These secret endgames will only increase that cynicism, stoking the fires of an anti-incumbent sentiment that is already permeating the American body politic.