Democrats are determined to get health-care reform through Congress. If that means using a parliamentary maneuver known as reconciliation, which allows the party in power to roll over the minority, Republicans will cry foul, but will anybody care about their hurt feelings? Nobody outside of Washington has any idea what reconciliation means in parliamentary terms, and not many Beltway insiders can fully explain it either, except to say it's a nifty way to get around the rules requiring a 60-vote supermajority on certain types of legislation, a system that allows 41 Republicans to block just about anything President Obama and the Democrats propose.
Republicans threaten to stall the Senate calendar with their own legislative high jinks if the Democrats pull out reconciliation. Democrats believe a record of accomplishment will trump the GOP's complaints about process when the two parties are put to the test in the midterm congressional elections. "If we're running ads in November 2010 about health care for 11 million children and the Republicans are running ads about Robert's Rules of Order, I think we're going to get some pickups," says Jon Vogel, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Vogel offered his assessment, along with his compatriots from the other congressional campaign committees, at a panel Wednesday assembled by the National Journal to assess the meaning of the special election in rural upstate New York to fill Kirsten Gillibrand's seat. With 25 votes separating Democrat Scott Murphy and Republican Jim Tedisco, and the victor uncertain, neither party could claim much in the way of bragging rights, although that didn't stop them from trying. Guy Harrison, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, warned that Democrats could "steal" the seat just like Al Franken had almost stolen a seat in Minnesota. Republicans vow to take their legal appeal all the way to the Supreme Court if the next round of contested absentee ballots ordered counted by the state court favors Franken.
Minnesota is the home of Garrison Keillor, where all the children are above average and Norwegian rectitude reigns. Officials are doing backflips to make sure each side gets a fair shake. The resistance mounted by the GOP is not about upholding democratic principles; it's about denying the Democrats a 59th senator. Republicans have apparently made the collective decision to oppose and obstruct wherever they can, which leaves Democrats no choice but to wield the club of reconciliation if they want to pass a health care bill.
Here's how reconciliation works: it's part of the budget process and it's really just an instruction to the relevant congressional committees to report legislation back to the Budget Committee that reconciles policy goals with budget outlays. The House version of the budget resolution reported out this week includes a provision for reconciliation on health care; the Senate version has none. The two bills go to conference to iron out the differences, and reconciliation will be retained in the final product. It's the club in the closet that, used or unused, significantly boosts the odds of success on health care.
Republicans are framing it as something way out of the mainstream, a liberal putsch brought off by the equivalent of a Chicago don. "They steamroller those who disagree with them, then, I guess in Chicago, they coat them in cement and drop them in the river," Republican Sen. Kit Bond told NPR. Hypocrisy is everyday fare in Washington, but Bond and others could use a refresher course on how often reconciliation has been used for major pieces of legislation. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, also known as welfare reform, passed under reconciliation rules with a Republican Congress and a Democratic president. The Bush tax cuts were done under reconciliation, as was the Reagan tax cut in 1980.
Democrats don't really want to pass a major restructuring of the U.S. health system with 51 votes. But they've come to the conclusion that the only way to get Republicans into serious negotiations is if they think a bill will pass without them. Then maybe they'll get onboard and even shape it in some way, and help bring along moderate Democrats who have a hard time with sweeping reform. Sixteen strong in the Senate and led by Indiana's Evan Bayh, these self-described centrists could become Obama's nightmare.
They're very much in the game, in contrast to a Republican Party that has imploded to its conservative base. The alternative GOP budget unveiled this week repeals the $787 billion stimulus bill and puts a freeze on spending. It has more tax cuts for the wealthy and for business, and seeks to privatize Medicare for people under 55, echoes of President Bush's failed Social Security privatization. There's no danger any of it will pass; the greater danger is what it says about a party weakened through two successive election losses, devoid of new ideas and incapable of being a partner in meaningful legislation.