This was ostensibly a vote on a motion to waive the Senate's budget rules with respect to an amendment by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) to permanently repeal the “marriage penalty” -- the higher tax bracket for married couples who file their taxes jointly. The measure Hutchison sought to amend was a “companion bill” making a number of changes to health care reform legislation already signed into law by President Obama. The underlying context was that Republicans were trying to attach amendments to the companion bill in order to send it back the House, where it had passed by a narrow margin. CNN reported that Republicans had chosen to offer a slew of amendments in order to “undermine the measure,” while the Associated Press characterized the amendments as “a final drive to thwart President Barack Obama's health care remake.”
The amendment also would have provided for a permanent sales tax deduction for individuals living in states with now income tax. This allows those individuals to deduct a portion of their state sales taxes from their federal income taxes. The amendment would pay for these changes to tax law with funds contained in the economic stimulus legislation that President Obama signed into law in February 2009 in response to the economic crisis.
Hutchison urged support for her amendment: “It [the amendment] would just make relief from the marriage penalty and the sales tax deduction permanent. If we don't act, people across our country are going to start getting the marriage penalty tax once again. This was corrected under previous tax law, but that is going out of existence at the end of this year. Sales tax deduction is something that affects eight States that do not have a State income tax. It just gives people everywhere in America, if they have either an income tax or a sales tax, the ability to choose what they deduct from their federal income taxes.”
Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) urged opposition to the amendment: “I would remind my colleagues that the Hutchison amendment uses as its offset rolling back the Recovery Act [the stimulus law]; that is, rolling back stimulus funds. That is taking stimulus funds to permanently pay for the marriage penalty relief as well as sales tax relief. With unemployment as high as it is, hovering around 10 percent, it makes no sense to cut back stimulus dollars. Stimulus dollars are a proven job creator.”
Baucus argued the amendment violated the Senate’s budget rules, because “there are funds not within the jurisdiction of reconciled committees.” In other words, the committees responsible for drafting the reconciliation bill (the Finance Committee and the Health, Education, and Labor Committee) did not have authority over stimulus funding. Thus, Baucus argued, the amendment violated the Senate’s budget reconciliation rules. Hutchison made a motion to waive those rules. Motions to waive budget rules require 60 votes for passage.
After the House and Senate both passed their respective health care reform bills, the two chambers had intended to reconcile those two bills into a final package. After the House and Senate passed that final package, it would have been sent to President Obama, who would have signed it into law. Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA), however, won a special election to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) before the final health care bill could be brought up for a vote. Brown's victory gave Republicans 41 votes in the Senate, leaving Democrats with 59 members – one vote short of the 60 votes they needed to defeat a unanimous Republican filibuster against the final health care bill.
In order to pass comprehensive health care legislation without a 60-vote majority in the Senate, Democratic leaders devised a plan in which the House would pass the Senate health care bill (H.R. 3590), thereby enabling the president to sign it into law. The House would then pass a separate companion bill (H.R. 4872) to make changes to the Senate health measure under a process known as "budget reconciliation." Bills considered under budget reconciliation cannot be filibustered under Senate rules. This process allowed the House to make changes to Senate-passed health care legislation without sending the entire health bill back to the Senate, where it could have been filibustered indefinitely. The companion bill incorporated changes to the Senate health care legislation desired by House Democrats. The House passed the companion measure, and sent it to the Senate, where Democratic leaders hoped to defeat all amendments -- thereby avoiding a second vote in the House on a substantively changed bill; a vote that Democrats might have lost given the already tight margin when it was voted on the previous week.
The Senate rejected the motion to waive its budget rules by a vote of 40-55. 37 Republicans and 3 Democrats voted “yea.” 54 Democrats and 1 Republican voted “nay.” As a result, the Senate effectively rejected an amendment Democratic leaders feared could have torpedoed the entire health care companion bill -- and would have permanently repealed the “marriage penalty,” as well as providing for a permanent sales tax deduction for individuals living in states with no income tax.