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Recon mission: Let the debate... begin

From NBC's Ken Strickland
The Senate has begun the reconciliation process on the health-care "fixes" bill. The 20-hour clock begins now.

There are a few certainties about this process, but most of it -- when votes happen, when it ends, etc., -- are unknown and will play out in its own way.

We do expect some votes today. However, most of the votes -- dozens of votes -- will happen at the end of the debate in what is commonly referred to as the "vote-o-rama," back-to-back votes with a couple of minutes of debate in between. 

Here is your talking points memo, and users' guide:

-- A reconciliation (recon) bill cannot be filibustered. It takes only 51 votes for passage. The only 60-vote threshold in the entire process is to override the parliamentarian. (More on that below.)

-- The goal for Democrats is to pass the bill without any changes -- nothing taken out, nothing added. If there is a single change -- even a minor one -- it goes back to the House for another vote. Democrats will need to defeat every single amendment and have the Senate parliamentarian rule in their favor every time. History suggests it's a tall order.

-- Recon rules require 20 hours of debate, equally divided (10 for Democrats, 10 for Republicans). Time can be yielded back, making it shorter. The 20 hours can be spread out over a few days, and likely will. But we expect some very late nights too.

-- An unlimited number of amendments can be offered, and Republicans say they plan to offer plenty. Votes on some of those amendments may happen within that 20 hours. But most will happen after the debate in the "vote-o-rama". Amendments pass with a simple 51-vote majority. Democrats, with 59 in their caucus, can afford to lose as many as nine people on each amendment and bring in Biden to break a tie if needed.

At some point after dozens of votes, Democrats may ask the parliamentarian to rule that Republicans are being "dilatory" or stalling with endless amendments. A favorable ruling could end the amendment process and move to the final vote.

-- Under the rules of recon, every section of the bill must have a budgetary impact. Republicans can offer 19 different objections ("points of order") to make sure every provision of the bill meets that test. The Senate parliamentarian decides what stays in or is cut out. Points of order can remove specific sections of the bill, or essentially kill it. If the parliamentarian agrees with Republicans and strips something out, Democrats will need 60 votes to overrule and keep it in. Obviously, Democrats only have 59, while Republicans have vowed to hold their group together.