Reconciliation

RECONCILIATION…. Any chance Democratic policymakers will pursue health care reform through the reconciliation process? There are some encouraging hints.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) suggested on Tuesday that the lack of Republican support for Kathleen Sebelius’ nomination to be Health and Human Services secretary is an early indication that the GOP may not be willing to work with Democrats on healthcare reform.

Schumer also hinted that such a lack of cooperation may force Democrats to pursue a budget reconciliation process on healthcare legislation. That would allow Democrats to circumvent having to get a 60 vote filibuster proof majority to pass reforms. […]

“I was surprised by the fact that so few Republicans supported a moderate, qualified candidate like Governor Sebelius,” he said. “It’s an ominous signal of the level of cooperation we can expect from the Republicans on health care. Maybe the Republicans are telling us they want us to pass healthcare reform through the budget reconciliation process.”

Note that Schumer said this in a press statement. It wasn’t, in other words, just an off-hand comment to a reporter — Schumer’s office was actually sending a not-so-subtle message.

On a related note, Thomas Mann, Norm Ornstein, and Molly Reynolds had a very interesting item in The New Republic the other day, presenting a guide to the last 19 times the reconciliation process has been used.

What is the precedent for using reconciliation to enact major policy changes? Much more extensive than the architects of the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 had in mind-or than Senate Republicans are willing to admit these days. Reconciliation was designed as a narrow procedure to bring revenue and direct spending under existing laws into conformity with the levels set in the annual budget resolution. It was used initially to cut the budget deficit by increasing revenues or decreasing spending but in more recent years its primary purpose has been to reduce taxes. Twenty-two reconciliation bills were passed between 1980 and 2008, although three (written by Republican majorities in Congress) were vetoed by President Clinton and never became law.

Whether reducing or increasing deficits, many of the reconciliation bills made major changes in policy. Health insurance portability (COBRA), nursing home standards, expanded Medicaid eligibility, increases in the earned income tax credit, welfare reform, the state Children’s Health Insurance Program, major tax cuts and student aid reform were all enacted under reconciliation procedures. Health reform 2009 style would be the most ambitious use of reconciliation but it fits a pattern used over three decades by both parties to avoid the strictures of Senate filibusters.

The authors — hardly reflexive partisans — added that it would be “perfectly reasonable for Democrats to use the process for health care reform that both parties have used regularly for other major initiatives.” Given that many recent uses of reconciliation have come from Republicans, it’s hardly an unjust conclusion.

Is it ideal? No. But it’s far more important to pass the bill than it is to worry about questionable misuse of a procedural tactic. And after seeing how the GOP has used this very tactic, the minority party is hardly in a position to complain now.

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