It is apparently the Democrats’ intention to use the budget reconciliation process to finalize the health care overhaul.  By means of this process, a plain majority of 51 Senators will be required to pass the compromise bill, rather than the 60 that would be required to fight off a Republican filibuster.  An arcane Senate rule plays center stage:

So if reconciliation is such a powerful tool, why didn’t the Democrats use it earlier? Because of another restriction, known as the Byrd rule — named for West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd , who introduced it in 1974. The Byrd rule allows the minority party to block the use of reconciliation if a bill isn’t tied strongly enough to the budget process. The full health care bill the Senate passed in December would have violated the rule (and possibly jeopardized support from many centrist Democrats hoping to avoid controversy).

But, because Democrats passed a full health reform bill in December with 60 votes and are only proposing to make changes to that through reconciliation, it’s easier for them to argue that those changes are simply about making the bill fit the overall budget.

The rule is well-defined, apparently, but nevertheless open to intepretation.  The spirit is to prevent reconciliation, a normally technical phase of the budget process, from being used to enact new legislation.  The Republicans are clearly right to complain that pushing the health care bill through reconciliation violates that spirit.  (Although Democrats counter that Republicans have used it more often in the past.)

But there is a big difference between fair play within the conventions of the Senate and fair play in the eyes of the public.  And in fact, bright line rules like the Byrd rule have more powerful rhetorical value in the broader public debate than he said-Reid said sniping about the cryptic, often unwritten, norms of the Senate.  As the quoted paragraph above points out, despite a flagrant violation of the spirit of the reconciliation process, passing health care in this way is probably within the letter of the Byrd rule.

And that will be ceremoniously confirmed on the floor of the Senate when Republicans raise the question and the Senate parliamentarian gives a ruling.  (By the way, the presiding member of the Senate can ignore the Parliamentarian, and the Parliamentarian can even be replaced by the Senate Majority Leader, but presumably it would not come to that.)  No matter how much Republicans cry foul, ironically the Byrd rule will essentially certify a maneuver it was intended to prevent.