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'Twas the day before Christmas...

From NBC's Ken Strickland
Senate Democratic Leaders have laid out an ambitious timetable for passing the health-care bill on Christmas Eve. But if they're successful with their strategy, the vote that matters most and sets the stage for final passage would happen on Monday.

To be successful, the plan assumes Majority Leader Harry Reid will have three key elements before the weekend: 1) a cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office, 2) a completely written and publicly available bill, and 3) assurance from all 60 members of his Democratic caucus that they will vote for the bill. As of this writing, none of those things has materialized.

The timeline also would require that Democratic strategists have accounted for every possible grenade that Republicans to throw in their path. Some Republicans have made it clear they're hell-bent on slowing down the process and/or killing the bill. But if Republicans relent of some of their delaying tactics, the timetable could speed up by a day or two.

With that as the backdrop, here's a look at Reid's game plan:

-- On Wednesday, the Senate temporarily moved off the health-care bill to deal with a bill funding Defense Department operations and programs (a.k.a., Defense Appropriations). Considering all the procedural hoops Republicans will likely make Democrats jump through, the final vote on the Defense bill will be Saturday. Yes, the Senate will be in on the weekend, both days.

-- On Saturday, Majority Leader Reid will start the process of bringing the health-care bill to final passage with a series of votes. As a testament to his desire to get the bill finished before Christmas, some of the votes are likely to happen after midnight or before breakfast.

The bill is in three distinct parts, all of which must be passed separately. Each part will need two votes. The first vote -- called cloture -- is to break the filibuster, and it requires 60 votes. The second vote is for passage, requiring a simple majority. Because of Senate rules, there will likely have to be 30 hours between those two votes

-- Part #1, the "Managers' Amendment": This is the part of the bill that includes all the last-minute fixes, most importantly stripping the public option and probably including suitable abortion language -- assuming Democrats can reach an agreement on the issue. Once this part of the bill is passed, requiring 60 votes, it's effectively done. Reid will have to pass to other parts of the bill, but that's really more about formality and process.

The cloture vote would be sometime Monday. THIS VOTE MATTERS THE MOST in this process. If Reid gets 60 for this -- which contains the most controversial parts of the entire bill for Democrats -- it's assumed he'll get 60 for everything else. Passage of the managers' amendment would be Tuesday.

(But here's one little wrinkle: Republicans have threatened/promised to make the Senate clerk read the entire managers' amendment aloud. But a Democratic source knee-deep in strategy feels they can have the amendment read within 8-10 hours, and still stay on Christmas Eve timetable. But if they're wrong and it takes a lot longer, it could push the entire schedule off by a day and push the vote until after Christmas.
-- Part #2, the "Substitute Amendment": This is the essentially the bill that was created when Reid merged the Senate Finance and Health committee bills. It included the public option/opt out provision, but the managers amendment -- mentioned above -- stripped it out. This part has all the other major parts of the health care bill: the exchanges, the subsidies, insurance reforms, etc. Again, if the above "managers' amendment" gets the 60 votes it, this should get 60 votes too. (Are you still awake?) The cloture vote would take place on Tuesday, and passage would be on Wednesday.

-- Part #3, "the Underlying Bill": This is the bill that everything else sits on, but it's really just an empty shell (consider this the pizza dough; the substitute and managers' amendments are the toppings). Most people don't realize the underlying bill is not even a health-care bill. It's actually called "Service Members Home Ownership Tax Act." The cloture vote would be on Wednesday, and Senate passage would be on Thursday -- Christmas Eve.

So this is the plan as Democratic leaders hope it will play out, leaving some wiggle room for error. Too much error could push the vote until after Christmas.