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What reconciliation is for

One of the weirder ideas out there is that it would somehow be unorthodox to use the budget reconciliation process to smooth out the difference between two health-care reform bills that have already been passed. But as Henry Aaron points out (pdf), this is literally what the reconciliation process was created to do:

The idea of using reconciliation has raised concern among some supporters of health care reform. They fear that reform opponents would consider the use of reconciliation high-handed. But in fact Congress created reconciliation procedures to deal with precisely this sort of situation -- its failure to implement provisions of the previous budget resolution. The 2009 budget resolution instructed both houses of Congress to enact health care reform. The House and the Senate have passed similar but not identical bills. Since both houses have acted but some work remains to be done to align the two bills, using reconciliation to implement the instructions in the budget resolution follows established congressional procedure.

Furthermore, coming from Republicans, objections to the use of reconciliation on procedural grounds seem more than a little insincere. A Republican president and a Republican Congress used reconciliation procedures in 2001 to enact tax cuts that were supported by fewer than 60 senators. The then-majority Republicans could use reconciliation only because they misrepresented the tax cuts as temporary although everyone understood they were intended to be permanent -- but permanent cuts would have required the support of 60 senators, which they did not have.

At this point, Democrats have passed health-care reform bills through the two legislative chambers charged with considering them. The president stands ready to sign the legislation. The roadblock is that 41 Republicans have sworn to use a parliamentary maneuver to obstruct any effort to smooth out differences between the bills. It's pretty clear who's stepping outside the traditional workings of the process here. Yet Democrats have allowed the other side to make it look like they're the ones who are bending the rules! It's completely astonishing.

By Ezra Klein  |  February 12, 2010; 10:17 AM ET
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To say "The roadblock is that 41 Republicans have sworn to use a parliamentary maneuver to obstruct any effort to smooth out differences between the bills" is somewhat disingenuous. It is possible for the House to take an up-or-down vote on the bill it originated, as modified and accepted by a Democratic Party supermajority in the Senate, and send the bill to the President. No further action by the Senate is needed...

However, House Democrats, led by Speaker Pelosi, are greedy and would rather make citizens suffer -- and die -- rather than accept the will of the Democratic supermajority.

The President has what may be the right approach: by simply ignoring the militant faction of the Democratic Party that seeks to kill the bill (and the citizens who need its benefits) in favor of its own seemingly self-interested childish whims, the President might be able to build sufficient support among the patriotic members of the House and Senate.

Posted by: rmgregory | February 12, 2010 10:37 AM | Report abuse

Until now you've opposed the use of reconciliation in healthcare reform, advocating the 60-vote strategy even at conference stage. Hmmm . . .

Posted by: scarlota | February 12, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

I'm glad to see the Democrats are finally crossing the aisle and working with the Republicans . . . to torpedo their own legislation. Finally, I can get behind the Democrat agenda. Which is, ironically, to wreck their own agenda.

I have no idea why they are doing it. It makes no sense politically, so, unless they sincerely believe HCR is a bad idea and must sacrifice themselves for the good of the country, then . . . they must just really like the Republicans.

You go, Democrats!

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 12, 2010 10:53 AM | Report abuse

It is obvious the democrats are not as learned, experienced in using the poilitical system to ensure passage regardless of votes. They need to get down and dirty and fight fire with fire or the party of NOthing will win. I do not wish them to throw away all integrity and honor as their opponents have, but get some backbone, expose, and continue to expose, those trying to destroy our country with their goals of party first, win at any cost, big business always remain in control and destroy our president at any cost.
They need to show the American people that the republicans are well on their way to becoming our countries most dangerous domestic terrorists.

Posted by: kathlenec | February 12, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse

As long as we're agreed the the Republicans won't need a veto proof majority to repeal it, but can instead reconcile it out of existence, let the reconciling begin.

Posted by: bgmma50 | February 12, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

If that is what reconciliation was designed to be used for, then I'm afraid that current practice is that it cannot be used for that, it can only be used for circumstances not envisioned for its use.

Posted by: bdballard | February 12, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

Kevin Willis-

"I'm glad to see the Democrats are finally crossing the aisle and working with the Republicans . . . to torpedo their own legislation. Finally, I can get behind the Democrat agenda. Which is, ironically, to wreck their own agenda."

Well done- this may be the quote of the year.

Posted by: Quant | February 12, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse


Not if you've been paying attention. The Democrats are literally frozen with the fear that some lobbyist, somewhere, might be mad at them.

Posted by: uberblonde1 | February 12, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: adamiani | February 12, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

"Yet Democrats have allowed the other side to make it look like they're the ones who are bending the rules!"

If only we had a free press to inform the public of the actual truth of the matter!

Posted by: jclaffs | February 12, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

The tensions among congressional Democrats mirrors the tensions in the health care system itself - individual concerns vs group concerns. It's better for the party to pass the bill, but maybe not for each individual congressperson.

Posted by: jduptonma | February 12, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

Actually, the cited opinion by Henry Aaron reaches the conclusion "President Barack Obama has announced a bipartisan meeting on moving the reform process forward. It is an opportunity for all sides to present ideas for improving the bills that already have been passed by both houses of Congress. [...] Reformers’ best choice is to embrace the democratic process and attempt to persuade voters that the current legislation is in the national interest."

Effectively, Aaron's cited opinion agrees with that of jclaff above.

The fact that there is only one bill -- originated by the House and amended by the Senate -- and not two competing bills, is a procedural matter of relatively little importance.

Posted by: rmgregory | February 12, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse


Being in the majority is like getting on the tightrope, while being in the minority is like resting comfortably in the net. The bigger the majority, the harder it actually is to balance on the tightrope, and the more tempting it is for the minority--resting comfortably in the net--to try and distract the majority, shoot spitballs that them, etc.

When the Republicans had the majority, and the Whitehouse, they may have done better, but they still fell far short of satisfying their base. One of the reasons they lost in 2006 and 2008 is their base was sick of what they felt was anemic performance, too much "cooperating with the Democrats" and not enough effort to advance the conservative agenda. They were okay at walking the tightrope, but not great, and eventually the Democrats knocked them off.

Once down off the tightrope--and having been up there so recently--apparently the Republicans had a fresh idea of how precarious walking the tightrope actually is. So they started taunting the Democrats, throwing tomatoes, shouting "be careful!" and "don't lose your balance!" and then started yelling something about their being a fire at the other side, and they had to turn around, in midair, *right now!*

Then they turned around, smiled at the ringmaster and the audience, and expressed their concern that Democratus, Walker of Tightropes, might fall, despite all the Republicans' effort to help.

The fact is, it's easier to sit in the net and try to shake the rope than it is to successfully navigate the tightrope. And, the fact is, it's difficult to judge how good a combination of politicians is going to be at walking the tightrope when their all in the net, or slowly climbing up the pole to get to the tightrope. If Republicans win in 2010, some of them are destined to disappoint, and it could end up being most of them. If Republicans win it all back in 2012 or 2016, the base won't really find out until after half-a-year or more of serving in office whether or not they can walk the tightrope effectively or not.

And, by that time, the Democrats might have a better idea about how to shake the rope, and better aim with throwing their tomatoes.

How's that for a tortured metaphor?

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 12, 2010 11:38 AM | Report abuse

*****The roadblock is that 41 Republicans have sworn to use a parliamentary maneuver to obstruct any effort to smooth out differences between the bills.*****

Sorry, Ezra, but the REAL roadblocks are:

A) Petty, self-destructive rivalry between the Democrats' two caucuses (after all, as we all know, the House could pass the Senate bill this afternoon if it wanted), and,

B) The existence of a substantial number of Democratic senators who don't want a bill to get to Obama's desk. There is absolutely nothing stopping Senate Democrats from passing a sidecar bill if they really wanted to give the country comprehensive reform.

As always, these things come down to political will, and calculations by lawmakers about the best way to stay employed.

Posted by: Jasper999 | February 12, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

Nancy Pelosi is still fighting to pass the health care bill through reconciliation. Nate Silver makes the political case for why the Democrats should follow her lead:

The near-term political case for passing health care, again, is not that the bill is magically going to become popular over the next eight months. Rather, it's that the Democrats are already in such bad shape among independents -- partly, no doubt, because of their bungled handling of what has become an unpopular health care bill -- that they may as well go ahead and give their base something to get excited about. Seriously, the Democrats' approval rating among independents in 19 percent. What more do they have to lose?

Here's the problem with this analysis: "The base" was as excited as it was or is ever going to be about the health care bill in the Massachusetts special election. The stakes were extremely high, and the choice was binary. Defeat Scott Brown and health care passes; elect Scott Brown and it dies. As you may recall, Scott Brown won.

But, the liberal bloggers say, Republicans are already going to run against your vote on health care, so why not actually pass it if you've already paid the price? To see the error in that argument, take this hypothetical from David Brooks a step further.

Let’s say we had a year-long debate in the run-up to the Iraq war. Let’s say at the end of that debate, 33 percent of Americans thought it was a good idea to invade Iraq, 46 percent thought it was a bad idea and the rest weren’t sure. Then let’s say that there were a bunch of elections in places like New Jersey and Virginia in the middle of this debate and George Bush’s party lost them all badly. Let’s say at the end of this debate there was a senate race in Wyoming in which a Democratic candidate made preventing the war a central plank in his campaign. Let’s say Bush went out to Wyoming and told voters they had to support the Republican to save the Iraq invasion. And let’s say the Democrat still went on to win that Wyoming Senate seat by more than 5 percentage points.

And then imagine that Bush decided not to invade. Would voters want to punish Republicans for pushing for an unpopular war? Sure, but they wouldn't be nearly as motivated as they would be if there was actually a war going on. Same with health care: If the Democrats don't enact their $2.5 trillion, tax-raising, abortion-funding bill, voters aren't going to turn out in November to kill something that is already dead. John McCormack

Posted by: kohnfjerry | February 12, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

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