Stupak Brought Down By Congressional Maneuver?

Fifteen hours in the health care reform debate is beginning to feel like a lifetime. Last night, doom-and-gloom seemed eminent for abortion rights supporters, filing out of Pelosi's office 'livid' and Bart Stupak planning a press conference for the next morning. All signs pointed towards Stupak's restrictive abortion language making a come back. But the sun rose on a completely different set of tea leaves: Stupak's press conference postponed indefinitely and abortion-rights supporters on the Hill in a much better mood, saying Stupak's language would not come to the floor.

How to explain the quick rise and fall of Stupak's attempted amendment? There's definitely the outrage from abortion rights supporters playing a role. And our 24-hour news cycle, where the negotiations played out real time on Twitter, upped the drama and urgency. But I think, in at least some part, this could have to do with a much less scintillating explanation, procedural rather than political: Stupak took a wager on the wrong Congressional maneuver.

Stupak could not introduce his language via the reconciliation sidecar, which only deals with budgetary matters. So he chose yet another, little-heard of Congressional maneuver. Taking its place along side 'Reconciliation' and 'Deem and Pass,' say hello to 'Enrollment Corrections Resolution.' The Congressional Research Service has just one paper explaining how it works; Congress Matters found exactly one example of its previous use. So I asked Sarah Binder, a whiz at all things Congressional over at George Washington University and the Brookings Institute, to explain what exactly Stupak was doing and whether it could work. Here's her take:

Enrollment is just the final stage of the legislative process. The final bill is double-checked, cleaned, etc. by the House and Senate enrollment clerks, it's printed by the GPO, and then it must be signed by the Speaker and the presiding officer of the Senate. Then it's ready to be presented to the president.

Stupak is talking about introducing an "enrollment corrections resolution." These are directives to the House or Senate clerk to fix something in the enrolled bill before it goes to the White House. The House would have to pass it; the Senate would have to pass it.

Most enrollment corrections resolutions are technical in nature. Abortion provisions are NOT technical. Senate precedents say that substantive enrollment correction resolutions need unanimous consent to be called up. If the Stupak resolution passes the House, could it really get unanimous consent in the Senate to be considered? That seems like a high hurdle, but without more details on just what is going on in the Speaker's office it is really hard to cast judgment on what's likely to happen.

As Binder points out, Stupak's plan hinged on a lot of 'ifs' working out in his favor. First, it has to get out of the House--which is far from a certainty, given that you have about 40-55 abortion rights supporters vowing to vote against it. Even if it overcomes that hurdle, then, as Binder points out, since this goes past a 'technical' change to the bill, the entire Senate is would have to agree to call up the amendment. Would abortion rights supporters like Barbara Boxer and Patty Murray going to give their consent to call up the resolution, after coming out strongly against the language in December? They were willing to budge a bit for the Nelson language, but voting to allow Stupak would be an even bigger stretch.

This still, however, leaves us exactly where we were 15 hours ago: where does Pelosi get her final votes? If Stupak can't have his language, then the jury is still out on where Pelosi will round up her last few Representatives. I also would not necessarily rule out the possibility of Stupak's language making a comeback--as Binder says, without being inside Pelosi's office, it's really hard to predict what happens next. And if we've learned anything from the debate about abortion in health care this far, it's that accurate predictions are incredibly difficult to come by.