The Obama administration believes it gained a valuable boost last week in getting health care passed when a 50th Democratic senator informally announced he would back reconciliation fixes to the bill.
Not that there remains any doubt that the Senate has the will to get legislative changes passed by an up-or-down vote -- rather White House officials view the news as the surest sign of commitment that the Senate will make alterations to adapt reform more to the liking of House Democrats.
"It is a sign of momentum," one top Obama aide told the Huffington Post.
As it stands now, the major health care hurdle confronting Democrats is in the House of Representatives, where a handful of lawmakers remain skeptical about passing the Senate bill pro forma. For weeks, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Cali.) has looked for a formal commitment from Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that the chamber will use reconciliation to pass amendments to the bill. At one point, there was discussion of the Senate actually amending its bill before the House voted on it -- though that was scuttled due to the rather crude parliamentary reality that you can't change legislation that isn't yet law). At another point, talk spread that Reid was circulating a letter, to be signed by 50 other Democratic senators, pledging to use reconciliation to change their bill.
At the time, Reid's office insisted that was just a rumor. But with freshmen Alaska Democrat, Mark Begich, becoming the 50th Senator to say they will back reconciliation, the practical purpose of such a letter has been achieved.
Whether Pelosi can now use that sign of commitment to reconciliation fixes to persuade her caucus to back the Senate bill remains to be seen. Members, undoubtedly, will be pleased to see some of the backroom deals stripped from the language. And added subsidies for insurance coverage as well as a deferred date for the start of the excise tax makes the legislation more palatable to voters back home. But other side issues that can't be changed through reconciliation, such as abortion, still present a threat to passage and are keeping congressional aides cautious.
"[P]art of this deal will be making sure the House believes we can fix the things they want fixed," said one Senate aide. "But the real uphill battle is if she has the votes to pass the bill to begin with."
On Sunday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said she thought the House would "have the votes when the leadership decides it's time to call for the vote." It wasn't the most definitive declaration, though Sebelius did predict that reform would pass.