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Republicans have a powerful weapon in the upcoming budget wars, and they’re going to use it

FILE - In this Feb. 5, 2014 file photo, Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga. listens at left as House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., right, questions Congressional Budget Office (CBO) Director Douglas Elmendorf on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Here's a new word to remember as Republicans prepare to consolidate their control of Congress: reconciliation.

Among normal people, the term has happy connotations. It's "the act of causing two people or groups to become friendly again after an argument or disagreement," says Merriam-Webster. But on Capitol Hill, reconciliation is a budget maneuver that amounts to full-on partisan warfare.

Under reconciliation, policies that affect the federal budget cannot be filibustered in the Senate, which means they can be adopted with just 50 votes. Reconciliation was last used in 2010 by Democrats to complete passage of President Obama's Affordable Care Act.

Republicans will have a 54-member Senate majority in January, so reconciliation would permit them to adopt legislation -- potentially very sweeping legislation -- without the support of any Democrats or even the most moderate Republicans. And during a meeting with reporters Friday, the incoming chairman of the House Budget Committee, Rep. Tom Price of Georgia said Republicans would definitely employ the maneuver in 2015.

The only question, Price said, is what to use it for.

Some want to use reconciliation to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Obama would never sign such a bill, Price said, but some Republicans believe the act of passing it through Congress and forcing the president to veto it could prove useful in drawing a contrast between the two parties.

The other option is to use reconciliation to pass something significant that Obama might actually sign, "to get a true change in public policy," as Price put it. Possible candidates, he said, including tax reform, changes to federal health programs, energy policy and even the debt limit.

"Should we use the finite number of arrows in the quiver of reconciliation for something that ... we know has no chance of an opportunity for the president to sign the legislation?" Price said. "Or should we use it for something that may have a significant possibility of having the president sign the legislation and truly effecting public policy? That’s a discussion that’s ongoing as we speak.”

Price said the debate is likely to be settled when Republicans attend their party retreat in January. ​

Asked which approach he would prefer, Price said, "It depends on the day and my level of frustration with the administration." While there's been no sign that the White House is "actually ... interested in working with us," Price said, Obama has expressed great interest in overhauling the business tax code.

"But if the president would sign tax reform, then you'd get 60 votes in the Senate anyway and you wouldn't need reconciliation," he said.

There are other considerations.

In order to activate the reconciliation rules, Republicans in the House and Senate must approve a single budget blueprint. This could prove difficult, given that Price indicated he would hew closely to the blueprint of his predecessor, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who sliced deeply into programs for the poor in order to wipe out budget deficits at the end of 10 years. The Ryan budget has never been popular among Senate Republicans. Last year, when Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) forced a vote on the Ryan blueprint, it won 40 reluctant GOP votes. GOP Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Dean Heller (Nev.), Mike Lee (Utah), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Ted Cruz (Texas) all defected.

If the House and Senate can't agree on a budget blueprint, they would not be able to trigger reconciliation. But they would still have the debt limit as a leverage point, Price said. Enforcement of the legal limit on government borrowing has been temporarily suspended until March, when it will go back into effect. Budget analysts expect U.S. debt -- currently at $18 trillion -- to exceed the limit sometime next summer.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he does not want to default on the debt, and that he hopes to avoid triggering yet another fiscal crisis. On Friday, Price said he doesn't view the occasion as a crisis.

“I prefer to think about it as opportunities and pinch points,” he said, calling the 2011 GOP demand for a dollar in spending cuts in exchange for every dollar increase in the debt limit a "wise" approach.