House Dems Wary of Health-Care Bait and Switch

Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Rahm Emanuel are running the final days of the health-care bill like a three-card monte game on Times Square. You have to admire their skill and audacity, even if you can't quite follow what they are doing. The suckers in this con could be wavering House Democrats, who may well place their fateful bets ("yes" votes) and lose their shirts.

Silly me, I thought that I understood what the Democratic leaders (and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs) meant when they declared that health care would be "the law of the land" by this coming Sunday.

I was assuming that they were aiming for final congressional action by then—before President Obama jetted off to Indonesia for his truncated (and now-non-spring-break-for-the-kids) trip. I was way wrong.

Here, after patient explanations by Democrats on the Hill, is the scenario:

Democrats are hoping that, on Saturday or Sunday, the House will pass the long-since-passed, original Senate version of health care as part of an enveloping "reconciliation" bill that contains various soothing (to the House) fixes and adds to the Senate bill.

Exactly how this twinned-up bill will be structured in parliamentary terms is unclear, but the Dems hope that it can be built in such a way that a vote on the original Senate bill is only inferred, not actual—thus giving skittish Democrats the chance to argue that they never voted for it, at least not without the amendments.

But since at that moment the Senate and House will have passed identical measures (i.e., the House will have approved what the Senate had wrought), the measure will be eligible for signature by the president.

He will sign it with a flourish, declare it the law of the land, then head for Asia.

But that will not be the end of the congressional story. The Senate will still have to act on the encasing reconciliation bill—i.e., the fixes and adds. This could drag on for days, and is unlikely to proceed in ways the wavering House Dems will like.

For one, Senate Republicans will try to tie up the bill with dozens of amendments. At some point, Vice President Joe Biden—who is likely to spend a lot of time in the Senate president's chair in coming days—will rule them out of order.

But the Senate Democrats themselves may have little interest in passing the reconciliation bill, since a majority of them voted for the original bill that is now in it.

If the Senate passes a different version of the reconciliation bill, there will have to be a House-Senate conference on it. That could be more than a week away.

Or the Senate could fail to pass a reconciliation bill at all, leaving House Dems with a bill they didn't like (though they could try to argue that they didn't really vote for it)—a kind of ghost-train vote.

But health care—or some form of it—will be declared to be "the law of the land" because Obama will sign it, or, if he doesn't sign it, he'll say that House and Senate agreement amounts to the same thing.

There is a kind of demented genius to this bait and switch. But will this way of doing things help Obama or the Dems politically?

I think Obama himself will benefit, if people see immediate changes for the better in the health-care system. And he will finally be seen as effective. But he is holding all the cards. Some of his House colleagues  may be left holding the bag.