The Current Thinking on Reconciliation
Mark Schmitt, whose years on the Senate Finance Committee gave him an impressive understanding of legislative arcana, has written a detailed post on the history, limits and technicalities of the reconciliation process. His conclusion, in particular, is spot-on.
One way or another, we'll have to compromise. We'll either compromise with the most conservative Democrats and one or two Republicans, or we'll compromise with the limits of a process that was designed for a totally different purpose. The political question is simply going to be which compromise is worse.
I'll just add that the most committed skeptics of reconciliation that I run into come from some of the most liberal offices on the Hill. It has not, in my experience, been even mildly split along ideological lines. In part, this is a simple matter of staffing. These sources would prefer that power remained with Nancy Pelosi, Henry Waxman, Harry Reid and the White House. Reconciliation empowers the Senate parliamentarian and the chairmen of the budget committees. In the Senate, that's Kent Conrad, who hasn't distinguished himself as a particularly fire-breathing lefty.
Their other argument is that reconciliation, which is a surefire process for policies that directly change spending but a very uncertain process for everything else, seems better suited to things that centrists want than things that liberals want. Liberals are very worried about consumers, while conservatives are very worried, at least in theory, about spending. The reconciliation process favors spending concerns over consumer protection. Regulating insurers, for instance, is almost certainly ineligible. But taxing health benefits and tightening Medicare's belt will sail right through.
My conclusion has been that a reconciliation bill should not look like the current health-care reform bill. It should be an expansion of public programs: Bring Medicaid up to 150 or 200 percent of the poverty line and allow people from 45 to 65 to buy into Medicare and give some of them tax credits to do so. I don't know if there are votes for that strategy. But it wouldn't run afoul of the Senate parliamentarian.
Either way, the politics look to be moving away from reconciliation. Most Democrats don't want to use the process, and it looks like they won't have to. Olympia Snowe might well sign onto the bill, and even without her, there are 60 Democrats who will almost certainly vote for something like the Finance Committee's legislation. Reconciliation is a gamble, and after August and looking at the polls, most Democrats aren't in a betting mood.
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