From NBC's Ken Strickland
Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe and a bipartisan group of centrist senators is poised to stop the healthcare reform bill from even coming to the Senate floor if it contains the public option. Because 60 votes will likely be needed on a procedural vote that simply brings the bill to the floor, defections from Snowe and other centrist Democrats raise the stakes for Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Snowe and Democrat Ben Nelson have been meeting with a handful of centrist for the past couple of days. "We share similar positions on a number of issues and frankly, overall, is not to rush this train out of the station. I think that's the overriding issue."
(TV types stop reading here; wonks keep reading)
The statements by Snowe and Nelson today show that Senate procedure is just as important as party politics for getting things done in a chamber that runs on rules and 60 vote thresholds on controversial issues. To better understand the importance of their statements today, it important to understand part of the process.
Right now, Reid, committee chairman, and the White House are merging two healthcare bills: one contains the public option, the other does not. Once the new bill is written, it will be sent to the Congressional Budget Office for a cost estimate, which could take a week or more. With the CBO numbers in hand Reid is expected to quickly bring the bill to the floor for amendment, debate, and final passage.
But according to Congressional aides familiar with the mechanics of Senate procedure, once a bill makes it to the floor it's very hard to pull provisions out of it -- like the public option. You would need 60 votes. (There are only 40 Republicans and maybe dozen centrists Democrats: let's call it 55 votes)
But the 60 vote threshold works in favor of Snowe at the beginning of the process. To get a bill to the floor, the Senate votes on what's called, "The motion to proceed." But to break the likely filibuster on that motion, Reid will need 60 votes. And that's where Snowe, Nelson, and other centrist could control the process.
Today, Snowe and Nelson strongly suggested their group would not support the "motion to proceed" unless they were happy with the elements of the bill, meaning it didn't include the "robust public option."
Following a meeting with the centrist group today, Nelson said the discussion involved, "a lot of concern about voting for a motion to proceed without knowing well in advance what's going to be within the merged bill."
Snowe said, "The more we can address upfront in this process before we railroad it to CBO, the better off we will all be ... this is my biggest concern right now, frankly."
When slow was asked if this was her strategy to slow things down, she smiled and responded this way: "Let me put it another way, is that it would take 60 votes to remove anything. That's the difficulty."