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The Rationales for Reconciliation


The idea, as it stands, is that there will be two health-care bills. The one with the hard stuff — the subsidies, the Medicaid expansion, the Medicare reforms, the public plan, and the revenue measures — will go through the budget reconciliation process, and thus sidestep the filibuster. Then there'll be a bill that includes everything that was ineligible for the budget reconciliation process.

But will it work?

The basic question has to do with votes: If you have 60 votes to overcome the filibuster against the second bill, why don't you have 60 votes for the whole package? I've not gotten a particularly convincing answer to this.

One hypothesis is that this is about helping conservative Democrats avoid culpability for the hard stuff. If Democrats go to reconciliation, Ben Nelson can complain about it and vote against it and generally oppose the bill without causing anyone any problems. Conversely, if it proceeds through the normal order, he'll actually have to vote against the filibuster for the filibuster to fail, and as such, he can legitimately be painted as having helped the Democrats. It's hard to argue that you opposed health-care reform when you cast the decisive procedural vote to ensure its passage.

A related hypothesis is that it's not so much about making the politics easier on the centrists as making the politics easier by cutting out the centrists. Ben Nelson may well be the 60th vote to break a filibuster, which gives him enormous power to shape the final bill. He won't be the crucial vote on reconciliation, however, and so would have less power over the final bill. This will make for a more excited base, an easier time with House liberals, and, not incidentally, better policy.

Another idea is that activating the reconciliation process changes the incentives for both sides. If Republicans can kill the bill, that's their first-best outcome. But if they can't kill the bill, the second-best outcome, at least for some of them, may be to deal on it. If there's going to be legislation, Snowe and Collins and Voinovich and a few others might want to see their priorities included rather than simply content themselves with a protest vote against the legislation. Reconciliation might actually get you to 60, because it ensures the endgame includes a bill rather than a failure.

Finally, the overarching argument is that without Kennedy, and with Robert Byrd's presence uncertain, you don't have a strong 60 votes anyway, and so there's no real choice. The math may or may not work in reconciliation, but that's better than the math definitely not working outside of it.

Photo credit: By J. Scott Applewhite — Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  September 1, 2009; 6:31 PM ET
Categories:  Health Reform  
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If you look at what happened with Social Security and Medicare, eventually Republicans did sign on. That may happen here too, although health care reform's near-term benefits will be less apparent to the public so it's unclear if the analogy will hold.

Regardless, Democrats are going to be held responsible for this bill so it's up to them to make sure it's a good one.

Posted by: bmull | September 1, 2009 7:12 PM | Report abuse

I have a hard time understanding why it is bad for a Democrat to be seen as helping "The Democrats."

Posted by: pj_camp | September 1, 2009 7:22 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, the idea that there isn't going to be a stand-in for Kennedy is bogus. They are having a hearing this week and probably a vote next week in Mass. legislature to fix that. And Byrd will be there if they have to haul him in on life support.

The scenario you described is entirely doable. And there might even be a Republican or two who votes the "easy" bill because it will be all about reforming insurance regulation. Who wants to vote against doing away with exclusions and recision? Who really wants to vote against a competitive "exchange?"

Once the easy bill passes, the insurance corporate insurers may be under pressure to flip because they will have all these regs to comply with, absent all the new customers to make up the difference that the finance part offers, even with a public option.

Posted by: cmpnwtr | September 1, 2009 10:19 PM | Report abuse

Does the Senate round upwards from 59.4? If not, then Kennedy's death doesn't change anything. You need 3/5 of members duly chosen and sworn in. Kennedy is no longer sworn in (presumably) and so you have 3/5 of 99 members, which is 59.4.

I haven't seen anything that says the Senate rounds up rather than rounds to the closest whole number. And if it rounds to the closest number, then Kennedy's death means that you need 59 votes rather than 60.

It is conceivable that they would round up, but that seems like something that could be decided on by a decision of the chair, which can be upheld or overturned by a straight majority.

Posted by: batemand | September 2, 2009 12:05 AM | Report abuse

I haven't seen much analysis about the guy in the Senate who will decide what gets to be included in reconciliation and what does not. Could it be that ONE individual gets that much power? Is there no check or balance on this guy? Scary.
Also, why not pass both bills with 51 and then, as you have pointed out several times, get a few of the so-called centrists agree not to filibuster?

Posted by: LindaB1 | September 2, 2009 12:25 AM | Report abuse

@ LindaB1

You're referring to the Senate parliamentarian. Ultimately 51 votes decides whether they go along with the parliamentarian's ruling or not. They can fire him like the Republican Senators did on the Bush tax cuts when they used budget reconciliation.

Posted by: cmpnwtr | September 2, 2009 12:54 AM | Report abuse

Sorry cmpnwtr, you are wrong. The parliamentarian has no real power. He only advices the Chair who would be Biden that a provision violates the byrd rule. Biden is expect by tradition to follow the parliamentarian's advice. He does not need to. If Biden rejects a point of order it needs 60 votes to override Biden. If he up holds a point of order it needs 60 votes to override Biden.

If Biden and 50 dem senators want they can literally pass anything they want using reconcilation.

Posted by: JonWa | September 2, 2009 8:13 AM | Report abuse

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