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Outcome of US Health-Care Struggle Could Hang On Arcane Senate Rituals


THE fate of efforts to reform the nearly trillion-dollar health-care industry is hanging these days in large part on the quirks of Senate rules - rules designed to foil any excess of democracy.

This week alone, the Senate has displayed some of its odd procedures: threats of all-night sessions, opening remarks in an already familiar debate that stretched to 40 hours, senators pronouncing that they will yield the floor to themselves, and quorum calls that lead to those mysterious Mozart breaks on C-Span where senators appear to mill around aimlessly.

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The gamesmanship on display in the health-care debate is an arcane science of parliamentary war in which the majority does not necessarily rule.

The House of Representatives is a more democratic place in the sense that it is harder to obstruct the will of the majority. If the leadership can find 218 votes for a bill out of 435, then they can pass the bill pretty much on their schedule.

But in the Senate, 41 out of the 100 senators can block most anything. They do not have to agree on anything except their opposition to the majority bill or amendment.

A much smaller group of senators can slow down progress considerably, making passage of a bill extremely difficult.

The Senate is perhaps more democratic than the House in another sense of the word: the protection of minority views against the power of majorities or the leadership those majorities have elected.

The filibuster is the chief tool in the hands of the minority. It is the power simply to keep debating an issue so that it can never come to a vote. The record for speechifying belongs to Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina. Then a Democrat, he spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes in 1957 against a civil rights bill.

The longest filibuster on record eventually lost. Southerners filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for 74 days before the majority succeeded in cutting off debate.

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The fine line between a filibuster and healthy debate is in the eyes of the beholder. Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas, for instance, has pointedly avoided using the term filibuster in his threats to stop the health-care bill now on the floor of the Senate by any means necessary. But he plans to offer amendments to the bill, one at a time, into the hundreds. ``There will be more amendments of substance on this bill than any bill that has come along in a very long time,'' said Senator Gramm on Tuesday.

Likewise, the opening-remarks phase of the health care debate had proceeded for 40 hours of floor time - a full week - before Republican leaders agreed to allow amendments to begin. Majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine had threatened Tuesday to keep the Senate in session 24 hours a day until the opening remarks desisted.

Rules are narrowing the scope of the filibuster over the course of the century. Since the early 1970s, the votes of 60 senators have been sufficient to end debate. This has come to mean in practice that it takes 60 votes, not a mere 51, to pass a bill in the Senate.

Once senators succeed in passing a cloture vote, debate is limited to 30 hours, with a maximum of one hour per senator. Further, Vice President Al Gore, as president of the Senate, can step in to rule any amendment out of order that does not narrow the bill in question.

Filibusters are more casual than they used to be. Beginning in the 1970s, the Senate has typically let a filibuster continue without anyone actually holding the floor. This enables the Senate to conduct other business while a bill is under filibuster. It also means it now is seldom necessary to bring cots into the Senate chamber.

Without cloture the majority leader has little control of the Senate agenda. Senator Mitchell was helpless to stop the speeches and begin voting on amendments to his health-care bill, for example, as long as any senator sought the floor.

If the Republicans had not agreed to stop talking last Tuesday, and Mr. Mitchell forced all-night sessions, the tactic would have been harder for him and his allies to maintain than for the Republican minority.

A filibustering bloc needs only one member to hold the floor at a time to stave off any forward progress on a bill. But the leadership needs to maintain a 51-member quorum in the chamber in order to keep the Senate in session.

Otherwise, the Senate must adjourn until a quorum is formed - meaning a night's sleep for the filibusterers without losing the floor.

Once cloture is achieved, there are other arrows in the minority quiver. The process can be stymied for a time with successions of quorum calls, motions to adjourn, motions to table motions, and further quorum calls. A minority could force an election of the conferees selected to negotiate the differences between the House and Senate bills, rather than letting the Senate leadership appoint them. No one has forced such elections in 30 years.

Once the House-Senate conference has concluded, a senator could force the reading of the entire report on the floor of the Senate, which in the case of the health-care bill could easily take a week.

Quorum calls are not usually a method of obstruction. Quite the reverse. While the C-Span audience may perceive an interlude when nothing happens, these timeouts are often the opportunity for negotiating differences out of the public eye.

The House offers fewer methods for obstruction by a minority. But it is not always the largest majority that holds sway, either. Early in the Reagan years, House leaders constructed a style of voting called king-of-the-hill, which they plan to use for health care reform.

In a king-of-the-hill vote, the leaders will put several alternatives to vote on the House floor. The one that passes is the last one to win a majority vote, not the one that wins the largest majority.

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