By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Senate Democrats are increasingly receptive to using a controversial budget shortcut to ease passage of health-care reform legislation, a shift in stance encouraged by the White House but denounced by Republicans, who say the maneuver is an unfair partisan trick.
The procedure, known as reconciliation, is included in the House's budget blueprint but is not in the Senate version. Both resolutions are expected to win easy passage this week and will be combined into a single fiscal framework later this month.
The House reconciliation language would allow lawmakers to bundle into a single bill all facets of health-care reform, combining the coverage initiatives that President Obama has advocated with the tax increases and spending cuts needed to offset the program's high costs. The rule also would protect the legislation from a Republican filibuster, allowing what is perhaps the most ambitious domestic policy bill Congress has considered in years to pass the Senate with 51 votes.
Senate Democratic leaders said they would continue to seek bipartisan support as health-care legislation advances in the months ahead, treating reconciliation as a fallback option, to be exercised if Republican support does not materialize. "We're going to decide whether it should be used," said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "I don't know why everybody's up in arms."
But Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), a moderate Republican, warned that adopting reconciliation would be "a colossal mistake." Democrats remain two votes short of a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority in the Senate, and Specter is a key swing vote.
"There are those of us on this side of the aisle who have cooperated" Specter said. "I think it fair to say that to misuse the reconciliation process would be a very strong blow against bipartisanship and cooperation. Obviously, it would impede future activity by the Obama administration in reaching across the aisle to get necessary Republican votes."
Advocates defend reconciliation as a legitimate tool used more often by Republicans in recent years, most notably to pass President George W. Bush's tax cuts. President Bill Clinton relied on the procedure to push through two of his signature achievements, welfare reform and the State Children's Health Insurance Program. "Why are they so afraid?" asked Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). "Reconciliation is a rule allowed by the Senate."
Some Democrats oppose the procedure because of its potential to polarize the health-care debate. "Everything I've tried to do for five years, going to listen to 85 senators in their offices to discuss health care, has been designed to make the issue of reconciliation of health care irrelevant," said Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), author of a bipartisan reform bill.
Yet other Democrats who had expressed reservations are beginning to view the approach as inevitable, given the White House's support for it and the mostly partisan outcomes of Senate votes this year. "I think it's unwise," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.). "But having said that, I don't take reconciliation totally off the table. . . . I'm not flat opposed to it.
Another foe, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), conceded that momentum was shifting in favor of the rule. "I would just say I am going to argue strenuously against it in conference committee," he said. "Am I going to prevail in the conference committee on this matter? I don't know."
Even centrist Democrats who have resisted partisan tactics are beginning to yield ground on reconciliation, at least for health-care reform. Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), one of eight Democrats to sign a letter condemning use of the procedural move on climate-change legislation, said she would prefer not to use reconciliation for any purpose.
But, Landrieu added, her position on health care could change "if the Republican Party remains unwilling to even come into the negotiating room."
The House budget resolution includes reconciliation instructions for two purposes: health-care reform and education investments.
Because the budget resolution gives committees vast freedom in the drafting process, opponents of Obama's proposal to introduce a "cap-and-trade" system to reduce carbon dioxide emissions worry that House Democrats will seek to include the climate-change legislation in the final reconciliation language, to tap its revenue to finance health-care reform. When the House resolution emerged from committee last week, the chamber's leaders said such an outcome was possible.
But behind closed doors, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) assured Democratic lawmakers that she has no intention of pressing reconciliation for cap-and-trade, aides said. And Senate Democratic leaders are cool to the idea because of opposition among moderate Democrats, who fear the system could drive up consumer energy costs.
Staff writers Paul Kane and Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.