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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.

By Ezra Klein  |  September 30, 2009; 12:18 PM ET
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Of course, when Bob Dove, Republican and the Senate Parliamentarian reached a decision on filibusters that Trent Lott didn't like in 2001, he found himself a new parliamentarian, Alan Frumin. Who, as it happens, is still with us.

Posted by: member5 | September 30, 2009 12:29 PM | Report abuse

So they are not going to enact good policy on the basis of an orchestrated campaign funded by corporate lobbyists to shout down members of Congress at town halls? That's pathetic.

How about passing a public option trigger along with all the other regulations and subsidies using the regular process then come back in reconciliation and replace the trigger with a strong public option which has been scored by CBO to be a big deficit reducer and thus should be accepted by the parliamentarian?

Posted by: redwards95 | September 30, 2009 12:38 PM | Report abuse

Why not simply split the bill in two, and pass the public option, exchanges, subsidies, and taxes by reconciliation, and the rest of it normally?

Posted by: StevenAttewell | September 30, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

It's often been said that the bill has to have some Republican support to give conservative Democrats cover for voting for it. I wonder if that can be flipped around: conservative Democrats need cover from slightly less conservative Democrats to vote for cloture (if not vote for the bill itself). There are 60 Democrats. Say that 59 are in favor of cloture. Say the 60th is Kent Conrad or Blanche Lincoln. Despite their qualms with the bill and knowing that they will vote against the bill itself, would that one Senator *really* want to be the one all by him/herself to bring the legislation down? Would, say, Kent Conrad do that if the other 59 Democrats (including conservatives like Blanche Lincoln) are voting for it? That is, wouldn't having that 59th Democrat Senator supporting cloture give cover to the 60th? If Snowe votes for cloture, so much the better, but it's not clear it's the Republican vote one needs so much as the 59th Democratic vote.

In other words, how "liberal" would the bill have to be to have *one* Democratic Senator bring the whole thing down in ruins? What's the maximum that that 60th Senator would accept? I know that's almost impossible to say (and may be impossible to identify that 60th Senator) but I'm wondering if we can begin to define that territory.

Posted by: robbins2 | September 30, 2009 1:24 PM | Report abuse

*****Despite their qualms with the bill and knowing that they will vote against the bill itself, would that one Senator *really* want to be the one all by him/herself to bring the legislation down*****

Lincoln is up for reelection next year, and she represents one of the few states that gave more votes to McCain than to George W. Bush (gee, I wonder why?). So, if anybody is going to want to get the most possible credit for opposing evil socialism, it's Blanche. It's obviously still early, and I don't have a crystal ball, but I bet Lincoln joins a filibuster. Assuming Byrd can vote, that means the Dems need Snowe. I think they'll get her, and maybe Collins, too. I think cloture passes 60-40, maybe 61-39. I just hope Lincoln's the only one, and I just hope several more Democratic senators don't bolt the caucus when a (hopefully more progressive) conference report emerges. I've gotta believe Senate negotiators know what they're doing on that score. Remember, a conference bill CAN be filibustered. This will be the GOP's last stand.

Posted by: Jasper99 | September 30, 2009 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, the senate parliamentarian's "power" is purely advisory. The president of the senate (the VP, or whoever is presiding in his place) can easily overrule him. Also, reconciliation requires big financial impacts, so the liberal desires (a robust public option) that would save more money in the long run would fare better than incremental change.

Posted by: irv12 | September 30, 2009 3:08 PM | Report abuse

Sadly, this the second time today that I've taken issue with Ezra (he's actually impressed with the idea that states should be able to opt-out of the public option--something every Southern state would do).

First, when he writes that liberals "...are very worried about consumers, while conservatives are very worried, at least in theory, about spending...", Ezra repeats and supports a media myth that, by all historical evidence, is entirely backwards. In fact, liberals are more fiscally conservative than so-called conservatives (support for a strong public option is consistent with such fiscal conservatism). And for the record, looking out for consumers and being fiscally conservative are notions that are not mutually exclusive.

In addition, Ezra continues by saying, "...Reconciliation is a gamble, and after August and looking at the polls, most Democrats aren't in a betting mood." He has it backwards here too. Yes, the media made a big deal out of the loudmouths who represented the minority at town hall meeting. It made for great television. But the most recent polls show that by margins of 2 to 1, Americans support a strong public option . The gamble that Democrats take is not to go through the reconciliation process, if necessary, but to pass anything perceived as less than a strong public option.

Don't believe everything the mainstream media tells you. There's nothing risky about reconciliation. Yes, the Republicans will raise hell. And yes, the mainstream media will play along as if the Republicans didn't do the same thing when they were in the majority. So what?

If the minority who oppose strong health care reform won't allow an up or down vote on the floor of the senate, then reconciliation, used multiple times by the Republican-led Senate under Bush to get tax cuts through, has every right (and obligation) to get around the Republican's (and some conserva-Dem's) use of the filibuster.

Posted by: cjo30080 | September 30, 2009 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Never mind reconciliation. I submit that this bill is such an obscene giveaway to the health care industry that even 60 votes won't give Dems enough cover. They've already gone so far as to let Olympia Snowe WRITE THE BILL and she still won't commit to it. This is a five alarm disaster for Dems and even worse for the American public whose interests have fallen competely out of the political calculus.

Posted by: bmull | September 30, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Looks like the Democrats have fallen into a trap.

If a bill passes, it will be one that will be framed as a give away to the industry, and they'll get killed.

If they pass nothing they will also get killed.

Wyden plus a public option available to all, that is free to press hard on prices is their best hope.

Posted by: wrb1 | September 30, 2009 6:32 PM | Report abuse

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