With Senate Democrats losing their majority but still able to muster enough troops to mount successful filibusters, Republicans are eyeing another tactic in their uphill fight to dismantle Obamacare.
It’s known as reconciliation, and despite the collaborative-sounding name, it’s anything but. Part of the budget process, it’s a powerful but unwieldy tool that the majority can use to push its issues through Congress with only majority votes in either chamber, thus evading the roadblock of a filibuster in the Senate.
“People would point to reconciliation as a difference,” said Rep. Michael Burgess, Texas Republican and vocal Obamacare critic.
Republicans argue it would be a fitting tool, since Democrats used reconciliation to help pass the Affordable Care Act in the first place five years ago.
“We’re going to use every tool that is out there, including reconciliation,” Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican who frequently rails against President Obama’s health care law on the chamber floor.
Republicans will discuss their options at a joint House-Senate retreat this month in Pennsylvania, as they figure out how to flex their new 54-to-46 majority in the Senate and their expanded majority in the House.
GOP leaders are expected to hold votes on full repeal of Obamacare, giving new lawmakers a chance to go on record for the policy even though it’s certain to fail to clear a Senate filibuster. They’ll also hold votes to scrap Obamacare’s excise tax on medical device sales and change the law’s definition of full-time work week from 30 hours to 40 — both moves that might attract Democratic votes and would put Mr. Obama in a jam.
But reconciliation presents the most intriguing and far-reaching strategy to take down Obamacare, or to at least cripple it by stripping out one or more of its major provisions.
Already, D.C.’s top budget experts and aides have compiled reams of historical data and presented the potential outcomes of using the reconciliation process to incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, according to a Politico report.
The maneuver is tricky. Precedent dictates that reconciliation can only be used once per year, and GOP aides said some are eyeing it to pass tax reform instead.
“There’s a limit to what you can do, and members are aware of that,” said McConnell spokesman Donald Stewart.
To qualify for reconciliation provisions must fit into strict budget rules, and the Senate’s parliamentarian is the arbiter of what passes muster.
For example, if the annual budget conference resolution report says that Congress must use reconciliation to lower the deficit, but a repeal of Obamacare would raise it by billions of dollars, that would run afoul of the rules, said Sarah A. Binder, an expert on Congress and legislative procedure at the Brookings Institution.
“Put simply, the bill can’t raise the deficit and can’t include what are termed ‘extraneous measures’ — provisions that are deemed unrelated to the original purpose of the reconciliation instructions,” she said.
Mr. Obama could still veto a final reconciliation bill, but if the GOP can prove it can clear a bill through Congress with less than a filibuster-proof majority, it would pave the way for them to argue Obamacare’s days are numbered if they can win the White House and hold their majorities in 2016.
Obamacare’s mandates remain unpopular and the GOP successfully used that dissatisfaction to make great gains in the November elections.
Yet the overhaul is now in its second year of enrollment in the exchanges, and millions of Americans have gained coverage because of it.
For now, Mr. Obama has signaled he’s ready for the fight.
“If Republicans seek to take health care away from people who just got it, they will meet stiff resistance from me,” he told reporters in his end-of-the-year press conference.