It’s an interesting thing to see the new Republican talking point that uses Barack Obama’s own words against him. Several times since be became a candidate for federal office he has discussed the need to get 60 votes to pass significant legislation through the Senate. In context, he has used this argument to explain why more aggressive health care reforms that are preferred by progressives are non-starters in our current political system. As you might imagine, a Democratic politician who is touting anything less than the kind of health care enjoyed by every other industrialized nation in the world is going to get asked about their rationale for compromising on the issue before negotiations even begin. And, the honest answer to that question is that you need 60 votes in the Senate to pass anything and no Republicans are going to vote for cloture on a single-payer system that does away with or significantly diminishes the profits of the private health insurance industry. So, rather than promising something that cannot be delivered, Obama has all along said that we must settle from something sub-optimal or get nothing.

Now, a funny thing happened that confused things a bit. The Senate Democrats actually had 60 votes in their caucus for four months (Sept-Jan) and they passed Obama’s health care on Christmas Eve. So, while they didn’t get any bipartisan support, they did reach the magic number. And the Senate does not intend to vote again on that bill. They expect the House to pass it as well, and then they will both send the bill up to the White House for Barack Obama’s signature.

I know that the passage of health care reform is more complicated than that, but we really need to focus on the fact that the 60 vote threshold has already been met. The fact that the Democrats now only have 59 members in their caucus means that the Senate cannot amend their bill any further, and that means that the House can’t make any changes either. The loss of Teddy Kennedy’s seat to republican Scott Brown short-circuited the negotiations over the House and Senate bills to find a middle ground both chambers could support. So, the House is not inclined to vote for the Senate bill because they like their bill much better and want to see some of their ideas incorporated. So, the problem we have is that the House won’t pass the Senate’s bill with a simple majority. The obstacle is the House and the only reason that 60 votes matter at all is because the Democrats no longer have the votes to make changes to a bill that they have already passed.

That is where the reconciliation bill comes into play. The concessions the Senate would have made to the House if they still had 60 votes will be made in a separate bill that incorporates just those changes. That bill will only require 51 votes to pass. It’s a way of making Scott Brown irrelevant. Nothing more or less. The Senate Health Care bill has already passed through the Senate, and it will be the bill (god-willing) that the president signs.

So, the president may have said in the past that any health care bill will need 60 votes to pass, and he wasn’t wrong. It did.