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Rules Committee's health word is final

WASHINGTON — Rep. Dennis Cardoza is caught in the middle of the endgame for health care legislation.

As early as today, the Merced Democrat and others on the quietly powerful House Rules Committee will essentially construct the bill. Equally important, the 13-member panel will craft voting procedures that could have profound political consequences in November.

"We have to cobble together the bill," Cardoza said Tuesday, adding that "it's got to be a whole package."

The Rules Committee will show its clout when it declares how health care voting will occur. One possible procedure, uncommon but not unheard of, would enable House members to sidestep voting on a politically unpopular Senate bill.

Democrats insist this special procedure is no big deal.

Republicans demean it as "the Slaughter Solution," after the committee's chairman, Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York. They say it's an abuse of power that will haunt Democrats.

"This Congress is already guaranteed to go down in history — not for any piece of legislation but for the arrogant way that it's dictated to the American people what's best for them, and for the ugly way in which it's gone about getting around the will of the people," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor Tuesday.

Usually, the Rules Committee decides how long debate lasts and which amendments, if any, are allowed. Traditionally, the party out of power complains that restrictive rules prohibit amendments.

In 2007 and 2008, the Democratic-controlled committee imposed closed, or restrictive, rules 88 percent of the time, a Brookings Institution study found. This was comparable to what Republicans had done in 2005 and 2006, but was nearly twice the level of closed rules a decade ago.

House Democratic leaders held a closed-door meeting Tuesday to steady their caucus in the face of GOP charges that they are using parliamentary trickery to advance the health care legislation.

"A lot of our colleagues on the other side of the aisle would prefer to talk about process because they don't want to talk about the substance of what's in the bill," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., a member of the House Democratic leadership.

President Barack Obama has been lending his political capital and prestige to the effort, inviting undecided Democrats to the Oval Office for one-on-one persuasion. Friday, he will deliver remarks on health insurance reform at George Mason University in Virginia.

The Rules Committee's senior Republican, Rep. David Dreier, R-San Dimas, wants the panel's health care bill deliberations televised. They rarely have been, including during Dreier's chairmanship when Republicans controlled the House.

Democrats defend the legislative rules they set, with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland emphasizing last year that it is the majority party's "responsibility to ensure that the (legislation) is completed."

The health care package and its associated parliamentary procedures could be more momentous than most.

The Rules Committee must pull together a several-thousand-page bill from the work done by congressional negotiators and committees. The committee will determine how voting takes place. This gets tricky.

Democratic leaders want to revise the Senate bill with a separate, filibuster-proof "reconciliation" bill that removes such sweetheart provisions as special funding for Nebraska.

But they also want to protect members from casting a vote for the unpopular Senate bill, even if it's revised later. The "Slaughter Solution," more blandly called "deeming" by Democrats, would slide past this. House Democrats would "deem" the Senate bill passed once they approve the rule for debating the revisions in the "reconciliation" bill.

Lawmakers previously have used the maneuver to avoid going on record as approving unpopular measures, such as increasing the national debt limit.

"Parliamentary procedure," Cardoza said, "is designed to make sure the majority is able to conduct its business."

The Chicago Tribune Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or 202-383-0006.

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