“Reconciliation” is proving a divisive word on Capitol Hill, where it could trigger one of the biggest partisan brawls of the year.
Despite growing complaints from Republicans and even some Democrats, the Obama administration and congressional leaders are seriously considering bypassing regular legislative rules to push through some of their top policy priorities, including health care and energy reform, by using the parliamentary maneuver called reconciliation and, by doing so, avoiding Republican stalling tactics.
It may sound like an arcane parliamentary debate, but a decision to add Mr. Obama’s reforms to the final budget bill that emerges from reconciling the House and Senate versions would eliminate the filibuster — the minority Republicans’ most potent tool to influence bills and slow down the Democratic majority.
In practice, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, would need just a simple majority to pass the bill, not the three-fifths supermajority needed to end a filibuster. Democrats have a working majority of 58 seats.
“Oh, I love 51 compared to 60,” Mr. Reid said Thursday when asked if he was considering putting the administration’s energy cap-and-trade bill on the budget reconciliation measure. “We certainly know that it is an alternative.”
Office of Management and Budget chief Peter R. Orszag declined to swear off the reconciliation route when testifying before the Senate Budget Committee last week while saying the Obama administration preferred to use the regular legislative process.
“We have to keep everything on the table,” Mr. Orszag said. “We want to get these important things done this year.”
If it remains on the table, though, Mr. Orszag and Mr. Reid are guaranteeing themselves a nasty fight.
“I really do hope we follow the regular order around here,” said Sen. Mark L. Pryor, a centrist Democrat from Arkansas.
Courtly, soft-spoken Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, told the Dow Jones News Service there would be “unholy hell unleashed” if the Obama health care package were tacked onto the budget bill.
Mr. Pryor was one of eight Senate Democrats who joined 21 Republican colleagues in a letter last week warning Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, and ranking Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire against using reconciliation to pass energy cap-and-trade legislation.
A bill “so far-reaching should be fully vetted and given appropriate time for debate, something the budget reconciliation process does not allow,” the lawmakers said. “Using this procedure would circumvent normal Senate practice and would be inconsistent with the administration’s stated goals of bipartisanship, cooperation, and openness.”
Among the signers were Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and a slew of centrists Democrats whose votes could prove crucial to Mr. Obama’s agenda, including Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Evan Bayh of Indiana.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat and a critical player in both the health care and energy debates, said Democrats haven’t decided whether to use the budget reconciliation process.
Mr. Baucus said after an address to a business health care forum last week that he would prefer not to go the reconciliation route, saying he still hopes for strong bipartisan support for the measures. He also has downplayed speculation that there is growing pressure from inside his party for reconciliation.
“I would not characterize it as pressure — it has just been mentioned,” he said. “It’s some Democrats, some in Congress, but it hasn’t risen to the level of pressure. Just musings, basically.”
Reconciliation is a double-edged tool, even putting politics aside.
Though budget reconciliation bills cannot be filibustered, they are subject in the Senate to the so-called “Byrd rule,” which allows opponents to move to strike provisions that do not have a direct impact on government spending. Policy provisions of the Clinton health plan were stripped from a budget bill in 1993 because of Byrd-rule problems.
Ominously for the Obama White House, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat who gave his name to the rule in the mid-1970s, was one of the eight Democratic senators to sign the letter protesting the use of the reconciliation process for the energy reform package.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said the House plans to take up Mr. Obama’s fiscal 2010 budget the week of March 30. Mr. Hoyer said he was “open” to the use of the budget reconciliation bill, but House leaders are letting their Senate counterparts take the lead in determining the legislative strategy.
With no filibuster rule in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, has far less need to satisfy Republican critics in order to get the laws passed.
• Sean Lengell contributed to this report.