- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - A battle is brewing within Democratic circles over whether to freeze out Republicans in advancing President Barack Obama’s expensive and controversial health care reforms and global warming fix.

On one side is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others who want to use fast-track budget rules that would allow Democrats to pass legislation by a single vote in the Senate without fear of a GOP filibuster.

On the opposite side are key Senate Democrats like Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., who oppose the idea.

Baucus says such landmark policy initiatives shouldn’t be rushed through, and Conrad warns that efforts to do so would have unintended consequences.

The White House is studiously avoiding a public position but White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel wants the option of using a filibuster-immune bill to advance Obama initiatives, particularly health care reform.

“We would prefer not to start there, but we’re not taking anything off the table,” White House budget chief Peter Orszag says. But he notes that “it’s more the norm as opposed to the exception for major pieces of budget legislation to move” on fast-track budget bills.

At issue is the congressional budget process, which is riven with an arcane set of rules. It starts next week when the budget committees vote on companion nonbinding resolutions setting the terms for subsequent legislation, including _ perhaps _ a so-called reconciliation bill. That’s the bill that can’t be filibustered.

Reconciliation bills are common vehicles for advancing a new president’s agenda. Republicans used one in 2001 to pass President George W. Bush’s tax cuts. Democrats used one in 1993 to pass President Bill Clinton’s tax increases. They can be bipartisan as well, such as a 1997 balanced budget measure passed by a GOP-controlled Congress and signed by Clinton.

But they are supposed to focus chiefly on fiscal matters, as opposed to major policy initiatives like global warming or health care.

At present, according to several Democratic congressional aides, it appears more likely that reconciliation might be pursued as a fallback option to advance health care. And there’s a strong possibility that it will not be employed for either health care or global warming.

Pelosi’s desire to use a fast-track reconciliation bill to impose a deeply controversial “cap-and-trade” system to fight greenhouse gas emissions seems to be running into too much opposition from fellow Democrats to advance.

Under cap-and-trade, the government would establish a market for carbon dioxide by selling credits to companies that emit greenhouse gases. The companies can then invest in technologies to reduce emissions to reach a certain target or buy credits from other companies that already have met their emission reduction goals. The cost of the credits would be passed on to consumers.

Government-auctioned permits granting industries rights to pollute under a cap-and-trade scheme would lead to significantly higher energy bills for consumers and businesses and is strongly resisted by Democrats from coal-producing states _ and party loyalists from car-producing Michigan.

Parliamentary experts say Senate rules mean that immunizing both the health care overhaul and a global warming measure from a Republican filibuster would require combining them into a single bill. That’s far too heavy a lift.

At the same time, special rules limit the contents of reconciliation bills to provisions that markedly affect the budget deficit. That means policy provisions important to writing either health care reform or climate change legislation can easily be knocked out on points of order.

Still, the allure of needing only a one-vote margin is strong among party loyalists since it dilutes the power of Republicans _ and Democratic moderates in the Senate _ to significantly change Obama’s plans.

Democrats want to avoid a repeat of their experience on Obama’s economic recovery plan, when a small group of moderates in both parties gained outsized influence by threatening to filibuster the measure.

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