Senate parliamentarian: House must pass -- and Obama must sign -- Reid's bill first

I’ll level with you. I think this is huge, but the procedural chicanery has gotten so convoluted that I can’t be sure anymore. Could mean nothing.

Or, it could be something close to Waterloo.

The Senate Parliamentarian has ruled that President Barack Obama must sign Congress’ original health care reform bill before the Senate can act on a companion reconciliation package, senior GOP sources said Thursday.

The Senate Parliamentarian’s Office was responding to questions posed by the Republican leadership. The answers were provided verbally, sources said.

House Democratic leaders have been searching for a way to ensure that any move they make to approve the Senate-passed $871 billion health care reform bill is followed by Senate action on a reconciliation package of adjustments to the original bill. One idea is to have the House and Senate act on reconciliation prior to House action on the Senate’s original health care bill.

Information Republicans say they have received from the Senate Parliamentarian’s Office eliminates that option.

Remember, Democrats were weighing two strategies. The first, having the House pass Reid’s bill but not send it to Obama for his signature until the Senate passed reconciliation, is eliminated by this, but that’s not a huge deal since it sounds like they were never real keen on it in the first place. But what about the second, the “Slaughter strategy” by which the House would pass the reconciliation fix first and then merge Reid’s bill into it by “deeming” it as having also passed? That would reassure Blue Dogs and the Stupak bloc by making it impossible for the Senate to double-cross them on reconciliation. Reid would be forced to pass the House’s reconciliation fix so that both chambers would finally have an identical fixed “merged” bill, which would then be sent to Obama for his signature. But that strategy’s dead now too (I think): If Obama has to sign something before the Senate can take up reconciliation, the only thing available for him to sign is Reid’s bill. Even if the House tries the Slaughter gambit by passing the reconciliation fix and deeming Reid’s bill passed by implication, Obama can’t sign the fix because the Senate hasn’t passed it yet. He could only sign Reid’s bill, which means Blue Dogs and Stupak would be in precisely the position they are now — having voted yes for a bill they hate, with no assurances at all that the Senate will actually pass a fix in reconciliation.

Time to celebrate? Not yet. Waxman dropped a bombshell of his own a few hours ago when he said they’ve all but given up on the Stupak bloc and will try to get to 216 without them. It’s possible that they could convince enough Blue Dogs to trust the Senate on reconciliation and hold their noses to vote for Reid’s bill, but with the Stupak 12 all (allegedly) flipping to no and another 25 Democrats leaning heavily towards no, they have literally no margin for error. They’re at 216 on the button, with any single member in the caucus capable of killing the bill by flipping. Assuming they can keep the group together, though, that’s one solution to the new parliamentarian headache. Just pass Reid’s bill and hope for the best.

There’s another solution too, of course, although in light of today’s ruling it would require a brazen exercise of ruthless political power. Hmmmmmmmmmm.