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Unfortunate gambit
Health care reform may pass by rule, not by the open vote it deserves

The plan for the House to approve a health care bill without actually voting on it is not the rule-breaker that opponents are claiming, but it leaves a bad taste in the mouth, nonetheless. House leaders should call for an up-or-down vote on this bill and go from there.

The procedure, which may or may not be used, goes by a number of names: the "hereby rule," the "self-executing rule" and "deem and pass." Most recently it's been called the Slaughter Solution, named for Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport, who heads the powerful House Rules Committee.

Basically, the maneuver would allow House members to approve and amend the Senate health bill with a single vote. In that way, representatives can avoid voting for the Senate bill, which could get them in trouble with various elements of their constituencies, while making changes to it and supporting the overall goal of health care reform. Pretty slick.

It's been done plenty of times before, by both Democrats and Republicans. While it has more commonly been used earlier in the legislative process, it is not unique to use the self-executing rule on a bill that will go directly to the president (assuming the Senate approves House revisions to the bill). While the stakes are obviously higher when a bill is at this point in its gestation, Republican complaints about its use ring hollow. Once the self-executing rule was accepted for any purpose, it was predictable that it would be employed as either party deemed it useful.

The problem is, it's not really useful; not in the long run. This is the most significant federal health legislation to come up for a final vote since the days of LBJ's Great Society. A measure this momentous deserves -- and requires -- open and searching debate and a clear vote. That's how the public comes to support controversial laws -- through the knowledge that it was fairly considered and then endorsed through a direct vote.

We understand President Obama's hurry and House members' reluctance to cast a vote that could be held against them. You can imagine the election-year ad: "Congressman Jones voted against the health bill and then voted for it. He's a flip-flopper. You can't trust Jones. Vote for me."

But in a democracy, some things trump expedience, and a bill of this reach is among them. Representatives are elected to make hard choices, not to run from them. We haven't liked this bill, because it does almost nothing to attack the No. 1 problem of health care: its soaring costs. Many members of Congress disagree with that conclusion. Fine, but they need to have the courage of their convictions or get into another line of work.

We have less of a problem, procedurally, with using the rules to bypass the otherwise inevitable Republican filibuster. While we remain opposed to the bill, as it exists, it is plain that the bill has the support of a majority of senators, based on the 2008 election that was fought, in part, on the need for health care reform.

What we don't know is if a majority of House members has the nerve to vote for this bill. We will never know if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi invokes this rule.

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