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The chairman of the Budget Committee explains the reconciliation process


As chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Kent Conrad actually oversees the reconciliation process when it's used. And that means he knows a lot about it: how it can be used, when it should be used, how it traditionally has been used, and how it can be stopped. We spoke this morning about all of that, and ended up talking more broadly about the ways in which the Senate has diverged from the Founders' intentions and its own historical customs. A transcript follows, with light edits for clarity.

You’ve not been happy with the reporting you’ve seen on the reconciliation process.

I’ve never seen so much misreporting. It’s like they heard the first three sentences of what I said and not the next three.

So then here’s your chance: Explain what’s going on here more fully.

What I’ve said all year is that reconciliation for comprehensive health-care reform wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t work for two reasons. First, the Byrd rule. The Byrd rule says that only things that score for budget purposes can be in a reconciliation package. If they don’t score, or the score is only incidental to the aims of the policy, they’re subject to strike. That would mean the insurance market reforms and delivery reforms would be stricken. And many of us believe them to be the most important part of the bill. So I never thought reconciliation would work for a comprehensive bill. But we don’t need to use reconciliation for the comprehensive bill. That bill passed with the supermajority, with 60 votes, not using reconciliation.

If the House passes that legislation as well, it can go straight to the president. But there’s a potential role for reconciliation in what we call a sidecar. It’s there to improve or perfect the package, and it only will include items that score for budgetary purposes.

Many of your Republican colleagues are saying that this is a perversion of democracy or a break with precedent. Sen. Orrin Hatch has an op-ed in The Washington Post today saying that using reconciliation would “threaten our system of checks and balances, corrode the legislative process, degrade our system of government and damage the prospects of bipartisanship.”

I’d just take you back to their own words. Look at what Judd Gregg said when they were trying to use reconciliation to open up drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Preserve. “What’s wrong with using a majority vote?” he said. Chuck Grassley, when he wanted to do tax cuts in reconciliation, argued that Democrats had used that process and so Republicans should be able to do it. So it’s interesting how perspectives change when control changes.

And one more point on this: When Republicans used reconciliation in 2001 for the Bush tax cuts, they used it to increase the deficit. The whole purpose of reconciliation is for deficit reduction! When we regained control, we changed the rules of reconciliation so you couldn’t use a majority vote to increase the deficit. So they took the rule, distorted it, used it to increase the deficit, and when we got in, we changed the rule back to preclude a simple majority vote being used to increase the deficit.

What about the threats to delay the reconciliation process by offering endless amendments?

Here’s what you can do. Reconciliation is limited in time to 20 hours of consideration. At the end of that time, you can continue to offer amendments. You could offer 10,000. But if the parliamentarian judges someone as being dilatory, that can be stopped. If he says they’re just offering amendments to delay final action, he can rule to shut that down.

One of the elements here that I don’t think gets enough attention is the cost imposed by running the Senate according to different loopholes. Only about a quarter of the population knows that it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster. And I’d guess virtually none of them realize that it also requires two days to let the motion to break a filibuster ripen, and then another 30 hours of post-cloture debate. So there’s this massive time cost, which some senators are using to make their holds more effective.

Then, with reconciliation, the process is limited, so bills get written to conform more tightly to the budget. That may not be the best or cheapest way, however, to achieve that bill’s goals. So it’s not just that we have a fight over 51 votes or 60 votes, but that in using these processes and loopholes, we’re imposing all sorts of other costs on the process. It would be better if we just decided that legislation will require 51 votes or 60 and did away with these complicating rules.

Republicans are forcing 60 votes even on things that then get overwhelming majority votes, that tells you they’re just being dilatory. These aren’t highly controversial nominations or bills. They’re just doing it to slow walk the Senate of the United States of America. They do this to deny the majority accomplishment.

But I think you touch on something there that’s important to understand. In the beginning days of the U.S. Senate, there was no filibuster. There was not a requirement for a supermajority vote. America was founded on majority rule, not supermajority rule. Somehow, over the years, this has morphed into supermajority rule, and that changes things.

When you go back to talking about the founding of these institutions and checks and balances, the original vision, as I understand it, was that Congress would have a distinct identity that would transcend party. Rather than just being an architecturally distinct building in which parties could compete, Congress was supposed to be in competition with the president for power. But as the filibuster and holds and all the rest become more powerful, other branches of government begin making the decisions that Congress can’t make. You’d think Congress would be unhappy with that state of affairs. Why isn’t there more of an effort to change these rules for the good of the institution, rather than exploit these rules for the good of the parties?

The partisan competition has swamped the shared institutional interests. All senators should have an interest in the institution functioning effectively and fairly. That common interest has been swamped by the desire for partisan control. On this matter, both sides have dirty hands. I might argue the Republicans more so.

Where does it end?

I’m not smart enough to know. For the country’s sake, one hopes that somehow we get this out of our system. But I don’t see much chance of that. If we can’t grapple with these very basic challenges of the country, from deficits and debt to fundamental health-care reform, you really have to wonder what will happen.

You’ve got a lot of relationships across the aisle. Certainly senators from both parties lament the rise of partisanship and the gridlock in the body. Are there ever conversations between members of the two parties about changing these rules, if not for right now then for future congresses?

There are conversations. The thing is that it's always going to be sometime in the sweet by and by. It doesn’t get done. It’s like the process that we have for confirmation. It’s absurd that we have so many positions that require confirmation. One person can put a hold on a nomination.

Or all of them.

Exactly! And not because they disagree with the confirmation of the individual, but because they’re trying to get other concessions.

A related trend we’ve seen this year is the attack on certain elements of the legislative process. In particular, there’s been a real effort to demonize the very idea of private negotiations between legislators and deals that are made to advance legislation. Obviously transparency has its benefits, but these have traditionally been important tools for coaxing people into doing important things that are politically dangerous.

There has never been, to my knowledge, a bill that didn’t involve private negotiations among senators. But one of the people who’s loudly decrying this is Senator Jon McCain. People should ask him if he was involved in closed-door discussions on averting the nuclear option? Because yes, he was. Or whether he was present in closed-door negotiations on immigration reform? Because yes, he was. So why all of a sudden is that evil, or bad, or immoral?

Every single senator has engaged in precisely those kinds of talks to resolve complicated matters. When you’re having a discussion to try to reach an agreement, people have to be able to think outside the box. They have to be able to weigh options, and if you do it all in public, things will never be considered because people will fear the reaction. You have to have a certain level of discussion that’s outside the media glare.

My understanding is that deals to advantage certain states have been similarly omnipresent over time. Putting aside the merits of the Nelson deal, which I didn’t think was that big of an issue, it wasn’t a conceptually different type of thing. There are smokestacks in Tennessee that are exempt from the Clean Air Act, for instance.

The truth is the Nelson deal was an irrelevant deal. There’s no such thing as a deal in perpetuity, because a current Congress can’t bind a future Congress. But demonizing these deals is also doing a real blow to people that represent states like mine that are small-population states. Our states are, by their very nature, different than large-population states. And one reason the Founding Fathers thought that states should have two senators was so that smaller states wouldn’t get run over and could bring their interests to the attention of the Senate more broadly.

Photo credit: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg.

By Ezra Klein  |  March 2, 2010; 12:30 PM ET
Categories:  Budget , Interviews  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: A policy-driven White House
Next: Lunch break


Ezra, do you find it easy to land interviews like this? I enjoy reading them, but also it seems like a good way to occasionally press someone to answer questions that normally they wouldn't have to (e.g. in your Ryan interview, although I thought he acquitted himself very well). Obviously, there is another purpose: to let someone explain themselves, to let your readers have insights into what members of Congress are thinking, without having to hear it through an interviewer with less substance than you, etc. Anyway, I'm mainly just curious about whether it is easy enough to get these interviews that you might keep it up and maybe even do them more regularly. Who knows, maybe after all of this you'll have your own TV show...

Posted by: gocowboys | March 2, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

All these explanations are interesting, and that's why I like this blog, but in the end, Republicans don't care about the truth.

They care only about greed and power. They will be honest and consistent ONLY when it helps them politically.

For example, you can explain to them a million times over with facts that Obama is not trying to force gun control on them, yet they will scream at you with eyes wide and bulging that you are a liar. I know. As a former Republican with southern roots, I've done this too many times with Republicans from sea to shining sea with the same results EVERY TIME.

Posted by: Lomillialor | March 2, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Of course Republicans think Democrats' use of reconciliation is unprecedented--Dems are using it to DECREASE the deficit instead of increasing it!

This is why we're all dealing with Jim "I voted against paygo, I supported trillion dollar deficits to get tax cuts, an Iraq War, and a drug company giveaway; but I'll be damned if I'll see 1/1000 of that go to build highways, help the unemployed and spur economic recovery" Bunning.

They just don't get economics. They're a bunch of Banana Republicans.

Posted by: theorajones1 | March 2, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Ezra.. Great interview.

Couldn't the democrats pass the Stupak amendment separately as a regular bill in the house/senate? It's really hard to see how the Republicans in house or the senate would vote against a bill that says that it will prevent federal subsidies for abortion. That too in an election year where the primaries are still ongoing.

Posted by: vinod_wp | March 2, 2010 1:19 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for this interview. It explained a lot to me about the reconciliation process that I didn't understand.

Posted by: Beagle1 | March 2, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps this is a question better asked on the Friday chat, but I'll give it a try:

Is it possible that a single Republican could block reconciliation by denying unanimous consent to start the process, a la Jim Bunning? Or can that be shut down in the same way as the endless amendments? If Bunning is willing to block COBRA benefits this way, I imagine several senators would be willing to do the same to block health care.

Posted by: jwellington1 | March 2, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse

@Lomillialor: "Republicans don't care about the truth. They care only about greed and power. They will be honest and consistent ONLY when it helps them politically."

Change "Republicans" to "Politicians" in that sentence, and I agree with you 100%.

"For example, you can explain to them a million times over with facts that Obama is not trying to force gun control on them, yet they will scream at you with eyes wide and bulging that you are a liar."

Registered Republican here. Have been for almost twenty years. I don't think you're lying. And I don't think Obama is trying to force gun control on me? Why would I think that?

Just checked. My eyes aren't bulging. Just wanted to make sure.

Though, given that I don't hunt--or own a gun--and probably never will, I may not pay as much attention to stealthy efforts at gun control as I might.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 2, 2010 1:31 PM | Report abuse

If you want to see where Obama’s going, you have to watch this Brand New, Viral


This Hilarious and Shocking Video provides a Fast-Paced Look at the No-Lie-Too-Big, Socialist Ideologues Who Now Run Our Country.


Posted by: CommieBlaster | March 2, 2010 1:48 PM | Report abuse

@Kevin_Willis, both sides are not always honest, but I don't think it is fair to jump to the conclusion that both sides are equally guilty of lying. If we look at the health care debate, the repiglicans are not even on the same planet as the rest of us. Death panels, government controlled health care, socialized medicine, government rationing of health care, comparisons to Canadian and European systems that are completely different from what the dems have proposed, etc. I don't know of any analogous issue where the dems have engaged in this level of just plain making things up. If you have examples I would like to see them. Hatch and other repiglicans diatribes on the evils of using reconciliation to "jam through a trillion dollar program" is simply false. HCR has already passed the senate. Reconciliation as outlined in the president's memo is just for making some revenue and expenditure changes. It doesn't matter to repiglicans that they are flat out lying about what the reconciliation process is being used for. And somehow majority rule will forever damage the senate, when this has been used repeatedly in the past without the halls of congress crumbling. The repiglican practice of making not just that all major legislation, but all legislation and presidential appointments that need senate approval get 60 votes is the completely new unprecedented abuse of power here, not using reconciliation to bridge the gaps between house and senate versions of a bill that has passed both houses.

Finally, repiglicans said that they have been shut out of the process. What about the gang of 6? That was 2 months of talks with equal numbers of repiglicans and dems. Another flat out lie.

I am very wary of creating a false equivalence between repiglican and dem tactics.

Posted by: srw3 | March 2, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

excellent interview, ezra.

Posted by: jkaren | March 2, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

"Socialist Ideologues Who Now Run Our Country" As soon as I see this kind of completely false labeling, I stop reading the post.

" No-Lie-Too-Big" is really the motto of the repiglicans over the last year.

Posted by: srw3 | March 2, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse

We have a bill that squeeked by in the Senate. Since this time, we have witnessed a special election from the state with the senator that championed this reform. The special election resulted in a vote for a republican that promised to be "#41." So, instead of the house amending and passing the senate bill for another senate vote, they have decided that they will sign the current senate bill, then amend it and send it back to the senate for a final reconciliation vote. This is an attempt to circumvent the Scott Brown election and nothing more - just admit it and stop trying to say this is a normal use of reconciliation.

Posted by: Holla26 | March 2, 2010 2:07 PM | Report abuse

A great interview, where the asker actually listened to the askee, a rarity, especially on talk radio and TV. Thanks for eliciting an elightening explanation of the intricacies of reconciliation. It would be so nice if the tea bag ranters and their handlers could approach this question with at least a modicum of actual curiosity to learn the facts instead of blocking civilized discussion with spittle-spewing invective that only spotlights their ignorance.

Posted by: HotDem | March 2, 2010 2:38 PM | Report abuse

I wasn't sure where the questions and answers were since everything seemed so scripted. Maybe someday, if and when Sen. Conrad's party is in the majority and has the White House, too, the changes that he thinks should be made will be made. Until then, I guess we'll just have to muddle along and be forced and coerced into doing the will of the people. How terribly democratic! BTW, Ezra, are you looking to unseat Baghdad Bob Gibbs with the softballs?

Posted by: Narquan | March 2, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

Holla26, would the bill have proceeded through this path if Brown hadn't been elected? No, of course not. The House always hated the Senate bill and would have insisted that the merged bill would be more liberal than the Senate version. Instead, their leverage over the Senate evaported with Brown's election because the Senate couldn't guarantee that a more liberal merged bill could pass (if they ever could). So now the House is willing to pass the Senate version of the bill, which is perfectly normal, Constitutional, etc. But in order for them to gather the votes to pass the Senate version, they're going to pass a sidecar to the bill that tweaks some things related to the budget. This will go through the Senate through the reconciliation process because the matters will be related to the budget. Again, nothing out of the ordinary there.

Was the process affected by Brown's election? Of course. Is this new method towards passing the bill in any way untoward or a distortion of Senate rules? No. Anyone that tells you different is either lying or doesn't know what they're talking about.

Posted by: MosBen | March 2, 2010 2:44 PM | Report abuse

Honestly, I was a little unclear who was speaking and at what time. The bolded parts didn't always take off at the end of a question, so it seemed like either there was an error in the bolding or you guys were finishing each other's thoughts.

And the idea of you and Kent Conrad excitedly talking back and forth and "really getting" each other is kind of creepy.

Posted by: MosBen | March 2, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse


You would be the only Republican I know (if I only knew you) who isn't amplifying the lies (such as gun control fears) being perpetuated by the GOP.

So you must be the exception to every rule. However, if I personally knew you, I am quite confident I could figure out which set of conspiracy theories you personally adhere to and which get your eyes wide and bulging.

Posted by: Lomillialor | March 2, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

Hypocracy is the only rule regarding this issue of Recon-silly-ation. The Senators are speaking with forked-tongue!

Why thr rush to pass something fewer everyday want, costs too much, provides weaker services, gives free services to illegal aliens, special deals to some, higher taxes...etc. A boondoggle in the making.

Posted by: NeoConVeteran | March 2, 2010 2:55 PM | Report abuse

Holla26 "We have a bill that squeeked by in the Senate."

Right, 60 out of 100 votes is a real squeaker, not like the 50 votes + Cheney for the 2003 tax cuts. We have to respect the repiglican 41-59 majority...

"they have decided that they will sign the current senate bill, then amend it and send it back to the senate for a final reconciliation vote. This is an attempt to circumvent the Scott Brown election and nothing more - just admit it and stop trying to say this is a normal use of reconciliation."

What should reconciliation be used for if not to reconcile the house and senate versions of the bill?

If the repiglicans weren't completely abusing the filibuster, the bill could go to conference, but the repiglicans can't abide majority rule and have resorted to using procedural votes to stifle policy debates.

No, circumventing the scott brown election would have been to pass the bill fixes before he was seated in congress (how repiglicans played the disputed Minnesota seat for much of last year.) This would have been better, because there are some things that need changing that do not fit under reconciliation. Unfortunately, Dems play by different (you know basic fairness) rules than repiglicans and wouldn't exploit their temporary advantage before a new senator is seated.

Using reconciliation is not about scott brown, it is about total, scorched earth, win at all cost, partisan obstruction by the entire repiglican party to prevent the winners of the 2008 election from implementing the policies that they ran on.

Posted by: srw3 | March 2, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

@ NeoConVeteran "Hypocracy is the only rule regarding this issue of Recon-silly-ation. The Senators are speaking with forked-tongue!"

No, hypocrisy (note spelling) is watching repiglicans disavow things they were for just a few months ago. For example, Grassley saying that the individual mandate was OK 8 months ago and now saying its unconstitutional (its not). Hypocrisy is Hatch saying that reconciliation is an evil perversion of senate procedure, when he voted for reconciliation bills as sweeping as HCR (remember welfare reform?) throughout the 90s and 00s. Repiglicans voting against a deficit commission bill that 7 of them sponsored is hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is saying that there was no repiglican input to HCR after watching the senate sit idle while the gang of 6 chewed the fat for 2 months, whittled away at the best part of the bill, and still couldn't bring themselves to vote for it. Hypocrisy is watching repiglicans being unable to cite any positive things in a healthcare reform bill that incorporated their 4 most important ideas. Hypocrisy is denouncing as socialist and far left wing, a healthcare bill that is substantially the same as the Dole/Baker/Daschle proposal (all radical socialists) presented last year. I could go on but you get the idea.

Posted by: srw3 | March 2, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, I appreciate your reasonable approach to reconciliation, but Obama thinks we are dummies and won't notice that he will be making up his own rules about reconciliation as he and the Congress progress.
I hope I am wrong.

Posted by: smtenof | March 2, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse



Posted by: KrisinAL | March 2, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse

I love Kent Conrad... I remember when in 2004-06 he was SCREAMING "Pay go..Pay Go on and on and on" like acobstiupated Crow ...that is when not busy taking PAYOLA from Amgelo Mozillo via "favorable loans" alomng with Chris DUDD.. Oh wait weren't they both heads of the Fianace entioties which somewhat were in charge of Regulkating Freddie and Fannie????Now this so called Fiscal Responsible fellow wants to proilong his sad Carreer by "explaining" Reconciliation... How about doing it RIGHT and Oppose the Flawed Obamacare Bills and START ANEW with an Intelligent piece of legiskatiion done bi partisan and that REALLY Covers the Majority of Americans without LREGALISE LIES that can only further Destroy out now Failing Economy?? Go Kent SPINE UP!!!

Posted by: redhawk2 | March 2, 2010 5:26 PM | Report abuse

"And one reason the Founding Fathers thought that states should have two senators was so that smaller states wouldn’t get run over and could bring their interests to the attention of the Senate more broadly."

Apparently the good Senator isn't daring to dream about apportioning Senate seats by income.

Posted by: bgmma50 | March 2, 2010 9:54 PM | Report abuse


Can you explain to me why the Washington Post allows liars to write on their op-ed page? I am talking about Hatch. Does your employer have a clue what facts are? Maybe you should have a little talk with them.

Posted by: Ja4879 | March 2, 2010 10:43 PM | Report abuse

Republicans vote FOR reconciliation 84.6% of the time. No, I didn't make that number up- that is the actual percentage of the time that currently serving GOP Senators have voted FOR reconciliation bills during their time in the Senate.

We just posted our analysis of Republican use of reconciliation in the past. The results: current GOP Senators have voted FOR reconciliation 84.6% of the time it has been presented for vote in their career.

We list each Senator and all reconciliation bills presented for a vote during each Senator's tenure, along with how they voted.

Posted by: thefourthbranchcom | March 2, 2010 11:59 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, thanks for the interview. I was impressed that 2 people who could be considered adversarial: press vs governement could have a reasonable and intelligent exchange. Thanks.

Posted by: mickster1 | March 3, 2010 2:05 AM | Report abuse

holla26 said:
>>>This is an attempt to circumvent the Scott Brown election and nothing more - just admit it and stop trying to say this is a normal use of reconciliation.<<<

This is probably true. However, please don't ignore the context in which it is occurring. The recent use of the filibuster by the Republican, distinct minority, a minority number that was selected during elections by the people of the United States, is completely unprecedented. It has been done as an abuse by this, again, distinct minority, in attempt to dictate terms to the elected majority, an attempt to impose minority rule in a way unprecedented in the 200 plus years of the United States.

In other words, all bets are off. If you're not ready to go back to the source of the problem, the Republicans' misuse and abuse of the filibuster rule, stop complaining.

Posted by: jonboinAR | March 3, 2010 9:20 AM | Report abuse

I love those comments about Republicans
not being truthful,especially from the Dem.
If a growing nose was an indicator, like Pinocchio, Pelosi & Reid would be sneezing at the Washington Monument.Obama 's would be back in Chicago.He would have to send
a schill on Air Force 1 to blow his nose
Using reconciliation to ram a bill that 70% of Americans do not want is bad enough,
but the attitude that they are smarter than the rest of us is insulting & WRONG.

Posted by: blakely1 | March 3, 2010 1:04 PM | Report abuse

This is an excellent interview, Ezra. The senator's comments are very edifying.

Posted by: SamanthaAdams | March 3, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

This is an excellent interview, Ezra. Well done. The senator's comments are very edifying.

Posted by: SamanthaAdams | March 3, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

I just want to add another appreciative voice to the chorus - thanks for this interview. Like the Ryan interview, it was fascinating to read an actual intelligent conversation between two informed individuals instead of soundbite quotes. More, please!!

Posted by: madjoy | March 4, 2010 2:41 PM | Report abuse

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