- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 4, 2009

While congressional Democrats easily passed the most expensive budget in history Thursday, the real fight now begins over whether leaders will try to ram through health care reforms or seek bipartisan support for one of the Obama administration’s key priorities.

When Congress returns from its two-week spring break in mid-April, House and Senate Democrats will hammer out a final compromise of the chambers’ budget plans.

And one of the most difficult decision negotiators will face is whether to bypass regular legislative rules to allow health care reform to pass the Senate by a simple majority using a fast-track procedure called “reconciliation.”

“I hope we don’t have to use it, and I hope it encourages Republicans to come to the table and offer real ideas and accept some they don’t like, because that’s what compromise is about,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, a liberal Democrat from Ohio. “If they don’t cooperate enough, then we go through reconciliation.”

The procedure would eliminate the filibuster and allow legislation to pass with only a simple majority, not the three-fifths supermajority needed to end a filibuster. Democrats have 58 seats - a comfortable margin, but two seats short of the 60-seat supermajority.

House Democratic leaders for weeks have insisted that keeping the fast-track option open is essential to avoid Republican obstructions on health care legislation.

Thomas Mann, a congressional specialist with the Brookings Institution, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank, said that - given the success Republicans have had blocking Democratic measures this year - an argument could be made that Democrats would be “nuts” not to include reconciliation in a final budget resolution.

Democrats “are not about to let [health care reforms] die as a consequence of a unified Republican filibuster,” Mr. Mann said. “I am convinced it will survive the [budget] conference and be part of a final resolution.”

But simply threatening to use reconciliation often is enough to force the minority party to accept concessions it otherwise may not consider, political experts said.

“It becomes a little bit of insurance that you’ll actually get good-faith bargaining, at least to start,” said Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning Washington think thank. “Then if you’re fortunate, you can work it out that you do get a broader range of support.”

Another battle is where the money will come from to pay for the White House’s $634 billion “down payment” to overhaul the nation’s health care system.

Budget resolutions are nonbinding blueprints that set goals for future legislation. But the House and Senate versions offer little guidance on how to pay for health care reforms.

The House passed its $3.6 trillion budget for fiscal 2010 by a vote of 233-196, with not one Republican supporting the measure. The Senate approved its budget 55-43 late Thursday, also with no Republican support.

Many Senate Democrats initially expressed reluctance in using reconciliation for health care, saying they wanted strong bipartisan support in passing one of President Obama’s key priorities. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus last week went as far as to predict “partisan warfare” if Democrats tried to fast-track health care reforms without Republican support.

But the Montana Democrat’s rhetoric on reconciliation softened in recent days, saying he wouldn’t take the option “off the table.”

Republicans have likened the use of reconciliation to an “act of war.”

“If you want to eliminate the need for a United States Senate, all you have to do is bring these bills through reconciliation. Then you avoid that requirement of 60 votes,” said Sen. Mike Johanns, Nebraska Republican.

But Democrats say such talk is hypocritical, pointing out that Republicans frequently used reconciliation when they had control of Congress.

“For us to walk away from [the possibility of using reconciliation], as the Republicans think we should, is to give up the same procedure they’ve used time and again [when they were in the majority] to achieve their goals,” said Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat.

Republicans passed President George W. Bush’s 2003 tax cuts using reconciliation. And they used the procedure two years later to cut spending on Medicaid and raise premiums on upper-income Medicare beneficiaries.

Still, Republicans argued that fast-tracking health care reforms would result in weak legislation, which would fail to meet the diverse needs of Americans.

“President Obama has pledged repeatedly to strike a bipartisan tone and reach across the aisle on health care reform,” said Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “Using reconciliation to jam bills through Congress would break the promise of bipartisanship.”

Passing health care reforms with wide bipartisan support - regardless of how it’s accomplished - would be vital for their success, said Len Nichols, director of health policy at the New America Foundation, a centrist Washington think tank.

“It’s fair to say this is a big societal undertaking, and it’s always important when you have a big societal change to have bipartisan support,” he said. “What you want is both parties to be reflected in it, because then both parties own it. And some day, Republicans will be back in the White House and run Congress.”

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