President's Budget Strategy Under Fire

Sen. Judd Gregg called the administration's push for a budget shortcut the opposite of bipartisanship.
Sen. Judd Gregg called the administration's push for a budget shortcut the opposite of bipartisanship. (Susan Walsh - AP)
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By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Senior members of the Obama administration are pressing lawmakers to use a shortcut to drive the president's signature initiatives on health care and energy through Congress without Republican votes, a move that many lawmakers say would fly in the face of President Obama's pledge to restore bipartisanship to Washington.

Republicans are howling about the proposal to expand health coverage and tax greenhouse gas emissions without their input, warning that it could irrevocably damage relations with the new president.

"That would be the Chicago approach to governing: Strong-arm it through," said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who briefly considered joining the Obama administration as commerce secretary. "You're talking about the exact opposite of bipartisan. You're talking about running over the minority, putting them in cement and throwing them in the Chicago River."

The shortcut, known as "budget reconciliation," would allow Obama's health and energy proposals to be rolled into a bill that cannot be filibustered, meaning Democrats could push it through the Senate with 51 votes, instead of the usual 60. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both used the tactic to win deficit-reduction packages, while George W. Bush used it to push through his signature tax cuts.

Administration officials say they have not made a final decision about whether to use the maneuver. But White House budget director Peter R. Orszag said yesterday that it is "premature to be taking it off the table." Meanwhile, key administration officials, including White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, are pushing for reconciliation instructions in the budget proposal that Democrats are scheduled to unveil next week, congressional sources said.

"I'm aware and the president is aware of the concerns that have been expressed, especially by Republicans, about its use," Orszag told reporters at a luncheon organized by the Christian Science Monitor. "We'd like to avoid it, if possible, but we're not taking it off the table at this point."

House Democratic leaders also are pressing strongly to use reconciliation in hopes of avoiding a repeat of the debate over the economic stimulus package, when a more expansive proposal adopted in the House was modified to appease moderate Democrats and Republicans in the Senate.

With 58 Senate seats, Democrats need the support of at least two Republicans to block a filibuster. But they could pass a reconciliation bill without any Republican votes -- and without the support of troublesome moderates in their own party.

Some moderate Democrats are arguing that reconciliation would empower their party's liberal wing while undermining a critical aspect of Obama's popular appeal -- his promise to work across the aisle.

Just yesterday, in promoting his budget request, Obama said he was open to a healthy debate and invited Republicans to offer alternatives to his proposals. "With the magnitude of the challenges we face right now, what we need in Washington are not more political tactics, we need more good ideas," he said. "We don't need more point-scoring, we need more problem-solving."

Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) said reconciliation would send the opposite message, creating "kind of a divisive atmosphere." Lincoln, a member of the Senate Finance Committee who has been working for months with GOP colleagues to lay the foundation for health-care reform, said circumventing that painstaking process "would just be sticking them in the eye."

Lincoln is one of seven Democrats who last week joined 21 Republican senators in declaring their opposition to using reconciliation to expedite Obama's plan to auction off permits for the release of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, a proposal known as cap and trade. That legislation "is likely to influence nearly every feature of the U.S. economy," the letter says, adding that any move to put it on a fast track or to limit debate "would be inconsistent with the administration's stated goals of bipartisanship, cooperation, and openness."

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which is handling health care, also has spoken against reconciliation, arguing that he would rather have a health-care plan that can win broad, bipartisan support than a narrowly drawn proposal passed only by Democrats. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, has argued against reconciliation as well.

"There are many more problems with using reconciliation than is commonly appreciated," Conrad said yesterday, after he and House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.) met with Obama at the White House. The topic of reconciliation came up "in passing," Conrad said, but no decisions were made.

One big problem, Conrad said, is that reconciliation was conceived as a way to force hard budget choices, such as tax increases or spending cuts, not as a means to advance substantive legislation.

Clinton, for example, rejected reconciliation for his own ill-fated health-care proposal, as did Republican congressional leaders when they enacted a Medicare prescription drug benefit, in part because reconciliation is permitted only for spending and revenue provisions. All the administrative language necessary to create a new health-care program or a new cap-and-trade regime could be cut, leaving major initiatives looking like "Swiss cheese," Conrad said.

G. William Hoagland, a former budget aide to Senate Republican leaders, said measures enacted through reconciliation also are temporary, which is one reason the Bush tax cuts will expire in 2010. "Do you really want to set up a new health-care system just to have it expire?" he said.

Jim Horney, a budget analyst at the left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, agreed that those rules create obstacles to using reconciliation for Obama's initiatives. But he said reconciliation is hardly a declaration of war on Republicans.

Several past reconciliation bills, including a student-loan measure in 2007, won bipartisan support, Horney said. He added that it's "a little odd that Republicans who thought it was hunky-dory to push through the Bush tax cuts now find it unbelievably offensive that you might use reconciliation, even as a backup."

Republicans argue that changing the tax rate is very different from adopting a sweeping reform of health care or energy policy.

"This is a game-changer for how the nation's economy relates to energy," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), the senior Republican on the Senate Energy Committee, said of the cap-and-trade proposal. "If we do it quickly, shame on us."

Staff writer Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

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