Health Care Overhaul Is On An Uncertain Path

President Obama is still working on his top domestic priority: a health care bill. The administration is optimistic that Democrats will have the votes to pass legislation. The Senate's Democratic leaders are try to devise a strategy for passing the legislation with a simple 51-vote majority. There are 57 Democrats in the Senate and two Democratic leaning independents.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here at home, President Obamas still working on his number one domestic priority, the health care bill, which remains on an uncertain path, to say the least. Joining us now, as she does most Mondays, is NPR news analyst Cokie Roberts. Cokie, Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So, the Democrats are trying to use what theyre now calling an expedited procedure here, to get through the Senate without the 60 votes that apparently they dont have. Hows this work?

ROBERTS: Well, in the mid-1970s when Congress tried to get federal spending under control, they passed a budget law. And it says that every year Congress is supposed to come up with an overall budget and the spending bills that they pass are supposed to conform with the budget outlines. And at some point in the year, the spending bills have to be reconciled with the budget.

And so the Congress tried to make that easier by saying that reconciliation of these spending measures could not be filibustered. So, that's what we've been talking about all this time. The Democrats are now saying that that's how they're going to do health care. They're going to put it on a reconciliation bill so they only need a majority vote.

They've been very loathe to do that, Steve, because they know they're going to get accused of being heavy handed, that it'll be called a non-democratic process, partisan behavior, all of the things that the Republicans have been saying anyway. You know, dead of night, Christmas Eve, 2,700 pages - all those things to make people concerned about the process.

But the Democrats have come to the conclusion it's better to take their chances with that, rather than have no health care bill, but it is a very risky decision.

INSKEEP: Is it worth taking a few seconds - because you've followed Congress for so long, Cokie - Republicans are saying this is extraordinary, it's unusual; Democrats are saying, come on. It's a simple majority vote and Republicans have used it all the time. Who's closer to the truth?

ROBERTS: The Democrats are closer to the truth on terms of whether they've used it before. But it is rare. It hasn't been used that many times. But, you know, these process things can be very difficult. You'd think it would be an arcane argument to use in the election year, to say he voted for health care on reconciliation? What? What are you talking about?

But these things do happen, where members get bit by these kinds of votes. Back in the early 1960s, when Speaker Sam Rayburn wanted to enlarge the rules committee of the House of Representatives in order to get civil rights legislation passed, he did that. The House had to vote on enlarging the rules committee, and several southern Democrats lost their seats on the vote to enlarge the rules committee - I mean, a very arcane vote.

But it was portrayed as a vote for civil rights, which in fact, it was. And they lost their seats. So, these can be tough.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's Cokie Roberts about political developments around the country. Democrats have trouble in Congress, trying to get health care through, and they also have trouble in New York State where the Democratic governor says he's stepping down. What makes this so serious for the Democratic Party?

ROBERTS: Well, they're greatly relieved that Governor David Paterson has announced that he's not going to run again. But he did that after a revelation that he had used state troopers to convince a woman not to testify against one of his aides on a serious domestic violence charge. And that is really just something he cannot survive. The question is whether he can stay in office for the rest of his term, much less run again. Democrats are having a tough time out there.

INSKEEP: Well, in a couple of seconds, can this affect other Democrats?

ROBERTS: Probably not, because New York is a special case and Democrats are likely to win in New York. But they're having trouble in other states for other reasons.

INSKEEP: Cokie, thanks very much. That's NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts, who joins us most Monday mornings.

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