Obama calls for reconciliation to prevent filibuster on health-care reform

President Obama urged Congress Wednesday to vote "up or down" on sweeping health care legislation in the next few weeks, endorsing a plan that denies Senate Republicans the right to kill the bill by stalling with a filibuster.
By Shailagh Murray and Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 2010

President Obama's endorsement Wednesday of a risky legislative maneuver to complete health-care legislation sent Democratic leaders scrambling to settle policy disputes and assemble the votes necessary for passage in the coming weeks.

In a speech at the White House, Obama urged Congress to "finish its work" on health care and indicated support for a strategy that includes the budget maneuver known as reconciliation, which would protect the final product from a Republican filibuster in the Senate. Obama told an audience of medical professionals that Congress "owes the American people a final vote on health-care reform."

But completing the job would require weeks of complicated parliamentary tactics that Republicans have pledged to challenge at every turn. Although Obama has reached out to GOP lawmakers in recent days, hosting a bipartisan health summit last week and offering to include conservative proposals in his plan, Republicans remain unified and resolute in their opposition.

GOP opportunities to block reconciliation in the Senate will be numerous. The minority party may offer an unlimited number of amendments and can challenge provisions that don't have a clear impact on the federal budget, restricting the bill's contents. "We're going to scrub the bill thoroughly," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky).

Even so, House and Senate Democratic leaders pledged to move aggressively. Under the plan taking shape, the House would pass the legislation approved Christmas Eve by the Senate. Both chambers would then pass a reconciliation bill that consists of fixes, being negotiated by Democratic leaders, to address House concerns with the smaller and more moderate-leaning Senate bill.

"The president's announcement is a call to action," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). "We will now move forward."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pledged to use "every option available."

In his remarks, Obama did not mention the reconciliation procedure by name but said the legislation now stalled in Congress "deserves the same kind of up-or-down vote that was cast on welfare reform, the Children's Health Insurance Program, COBRA health coverage for the unemployed and both Bush tax cuts -- all of which had to pass Congress with nothing more than a simple majority."

Those programs were passed under reconciliation rules, which enable the Senate to act with a simple majority rather than a filibuster-proof 60 votes.

In response, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said Obama embraced "the hyper-partisan reconciliation tactic," and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said Obama "voiced support for a partisan scheme to jam the bill through Congress."

As the process unfolds, Pelosi faces the challenge of uniting conservatives and progressives in her party behind a Senate bill that both sides find lacking -- on the left because it has no public option, and on the right because its language on abortion coverage is less restrictive.

Because Pelosi is likely to lose at least a handful of Democrats over the abortion issue, she must win conversions among the 39 Democratic lawmakers who voted against the House bill Nov. 7. One target is moderate Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), who said Wednesday that he was encouraged by the direction of the discussions.

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