8% of Hope

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History says the odds are good that a final health care bill will pass Congress once the separate versions passed by the Senate and House are reconciled behind closed doors. But it’s not a sure thing. Congressional scholar Barbara Sinclair of UCLA notes that, since 1992, the last eight Congresses have seen one out of twelve pieces of major legislation fail to become law even though they passed both houses.

Perhaps surprisingly, such last-minute defeats occur even though Congressional leaders have increasingly abandoned the use of traditional conference committees to reconcile House and Senate versions of a bill. Since 1992, conferences have been used only 56% of the time to reconcile major bills. As with the health care bill, sometimes the “ping pong” method is used, with congressional leaders meeting privately and then informally exchanging amendments between houses until a final version is reached. Today’s negotiations are being held at the White House and kept to a small group led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Harry Reid, with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel closely involved.


They are trying to thread a legislative needle. “There’s only a certain amount of wiggle room,” says West Virginia Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who notes the Senate’s version of health care passed without a vote to spare. The House’s version passed by only 220 to 215.

Differences between the two versions center on House language strongly restricting federal funding for abortion and the Senate’s refusal to include a “public option” — a government-run health insurance plan. But other differences include how quickly the bill takes effect, what taxes will be raised, and the penalties on people who ignore the federal mandate stipulating they must buy health insurance.

There is good reason to think a resolution will finally be reached. “Each side knows that we can’t fail,” says New York Senator Chuck Schumer. True enough, but the closeness of the vote in each House gives dissident members a great deal of leverage to demand changes. A lot can happen in the six weeks it will probably take to tidy up a final bill. Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson may bend to the withering attacks on him back home and decline to support the final product. Polls could show a continuing slide in the bill’s popularity as the economy fails to improve, thus spooking House Democrats in swing districts. A major foreign policy crisis could push health care to the back burner.

After all, 8% of major bills have not cleared the final hurdle in recent Congresses to become law. Many of the reasons can be found lurking around the edges of the debate over the current health care bill.

‘John Fund is a columnist with the Wall Street Journal’