Yesterday, the Senate took a key procedural vote in service of the Republicans’ never-ending quest to repeal (or at least partially repeal) the ACA. Fifty Republican senators and Vice President Mike Pence voted to proceed to debate on repeal – without knowing the final product they will vote on. As I and others have written before, this is a recipe for disaster when it comes to an area of policy as complex as health care. But I want to write here to emphasize a different aspect of the procedure: the elusive conference committee.
Specifically, a lot of the rhetoric coming from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other top Republicans in the days before the vote went something like this: the goal is just to find something that 50 Republican Senators can agree on for now, and after that there will be a conference committee with the House of Representatives to settle on a final bill (examples here, here, here, and here). This tactic should remind health care followers of the rhetoric coming out of the House after they approved their own bill in May – at least some electorally vulnerable Representatives noted that they didn’t actually vote to pass their disastrous bill, they just voted to send it to the Senate, which would then clean it up.
There's just one problem: the Senate doesn't have the ability to control whether they go to a conference with the House. If the Senate successfully passes something – whether that be skinny repeal or some other mystery bill still to be determined – the House can simply pass that text into law without making changes.
Let’s go to my new favorite source, which is Riddick’s Senate Procedures, named after Senate Parliamentarian Emeritus Floyd M. Riddick. (NB: If you think I should have titled this blog post “The Chronicles of Riddick-ulous,” please drop me an email.) Riddick’s, last revised in 1992 is an encyclopedic treatise containing all Senate Procedures, and it has some thoughts about conference committees. And, because it is now 2017, there are also two terrific CRS reports from 2015 (here and here) detailing conference committee procedures.
So what do Riddick’s/the CRS reports provide for, here? In short, it’s not up to the Senate whether they go to conference with the House. It’s up to the House. The House could just pass the bill passed by the Senate, as is. Or it could agree to go to a conference with the Senate, further delaying the repeal process and requiring an additional vote in each chamber.
Don't believe the spin from Senators who tell you that theirs is just a vote to go to conference. They don't control that. This may be their final vote – they should act like it, and own the consequences.