Dems face ‘partisan warfare’

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The chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee has predicted “partisan warfare” that would jeopardize one of President Obama’s top priorities if some Democratic leaders continue efforts to ram health care reforms through Congress.

As Congress completed work on budget outlines Thursday that largely mirror Mr. Obama’s spending priorities, House and Senate Democrats increasingly were at odds on how to advance the president’s planned overhaul of the nation’s health care system.

“This should be America’s health care reform. This is not a partisan issue,” Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, told a small gathering of reporters at the Capitol on Thursday. “And I know doggone well the president would very much like it to be bipartisan, too.”

The chairman’s words were in response to comments made earlier in the day by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is pushing for an unusual legislative procedure that would allow a health care reform package to pass the Senate with fewer votes than normal.

Mrs. Pelosi and other House Democrats worry that without the so-called “reconciliation” procedure, Senate Republicans could block or weaken Mr. Obama’s health care reforms more easily.

“I believe that it’s absolutely essential that we come out of this year with a substantial health care reform,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “I believe that that is best served by having reconciliation in the package.”

Meanwhile on Thursday, the Senate Budget Committee passed a $3.5 trillion spending blueprint for fiscal 2010 that was similar to the $3.6 trillion outline passed by the House a day earlier. Both plans project budget deficits of $1.2 trillion for 2010, compared with the administration’s $1.4 trillion predicted deficit.

Both chambers shaved a few billion dollars from the administration’s $3.7 trillion budget proposal but preserved most of the president’s key priorities, including health care, energy and education projects.

The two congressional versions both reject the administration’s desire to fix the expanding scope of the alternative minimum tax (AMT) and to make permanent Bush-era middle-class tax credits of up to $800 for couples. The House plan would phase out the credits and AMT solution after 2010, while the Senate calls for ending them after 2012.

Adding health care legislation to the final budget bill that emerges from reconciling the House and Senate versions would eliminate the potential for a Senate filibuster - the minority Republicans’ most potent tool to influence bills and slow down the Democratic majority. Such a move would 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.

But Mr. Baucus, who, as finance chairman plays a key role in drafting health care measures, has said it’s imperative that any health care reforms pass with strong bipartisan support.

“We’ll get a much better chance at getting better, more meaningful health care reform” with bipartisan support, he said. “That’s better accomplished by not going to reconciliation.”

Mr. Baucus added that if Mrs. Pelosi and other Democrats pursue the matter, “it would set health care reform back.”

“Reconciliation is going to cause partisan warfare,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, remains noncommittal on whether he would allow a health care package to pass with only a simple majority.

“We believe very strongly that Senator Baucus should have an opportunity to see what he can do on a bipartisan basis,” Mr. Reid said during his usual weekly media briefing Thursday. “But I just think we’re getting way ahead of ourselves here.”

When pressed on the matter, the majority leader said flatly that “we’re taking nothing off the table.”

Republicans in recent days have exploited the growing Democratic rift regarding how to proceed with a health care package. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, accused House Democratic leaders of using parliamentary procedures to “sneak through” nationalized health care.

It’s “a special rule that was never intended to create energy or health care policy for our country - issues so significant that our regular order should prevail,” Mr. Kyl said on the Senate floor Thursday. “If the final budget includes reconciliation instructions for the Senate, Senate Republicans will have no recourse for stopping Democrats.”

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