Paving the way? Democrats mull legislative end-run for Obama
“Reconciliation” is proving a divisive word on Capitol Hill, where it could trigger one of the biggest partisan brawls of the year.
Despite growing complaints from Republicans and even some Democrats, the Obama administration and congressional leaders are refusing to rule out bypassing regular legislative rules to push through some of their top policy priorities, including health care and energy reform, and avoid Republican stalling tactics.
It may sound like an arcane parliamentary debate, but a decision to add Mr. Obama’s reforms to the final budget bill that emerges from reconciling the House and Senate versions would eliminate the filibuster — the minority Republicans’ most potent tool to influence bills and slow down the Democratic majority.
In practice, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, would need just a simple majority to pass the bill, not the three-fifths supermajority needed to end a filibuster. Democrats have a working majority of 58 seats.
“Oh, I love 51 compared to 60,” Mr. Reid said March 12 when asked if he was considering putting the administration’s energy cap-and-trade bill on the budget reconciliation measure. “We certainly know that it is an alternative.”
Office of Management and Budget chief Peter R. Orszag declined to swear off the reconciliation route when testifying before the Senate Budget Committee two weeks ago while saying the Obama administration preferred to use the regu- lar legislative process.
“We have to keep everything on the table,” Mr. Orszag said. “We want to get these important things done this year.”
If it remains on the table, though, Mr. Orszag and Mr. Reid are guaranteeing themselves a nasty fight.
“I really do hope we follow the regular order around here,” said Sen. Mark L. Pryor, a centrist Democrat from Arkansas. Courtly, soft-spoken Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, told the Dow Jones News Service there would be “unholy hell unleashed” if the Obama health care package were tacked onto the budget bill.
Mr. Pryor was one of eight Senate Democrats who joined 21 Republican colleagues in a letter last week warning Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, and ranking Repub- lican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire against using reconciliation to pass energy capand-trade legislation.
A bill “so far-reaching should be fully vetted and given appropriate time for debate, something the budget reconciliation process does not allow,” the lawmakers said. “Using this procedure would circumvent nor mal Senate practice and would be inconsistent with the administration’s stated goals of bipartisanship, cooperation, and openness.”
Among the signers were Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and a slew of centrists Democrats whose votes could prove crucial to Mr. Obama’s agenda, including Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Evan Bayh of Indiana.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat and a critical player in both the health care and energy debates, said Democrats haven’t decided whether to use the budget reconciliation process.
Mr. Baucus said after an address to a business health care forum two weeks ago that he would prefer not to go the reconciliation route, saying he still hopes for strong bipar tisan support for the measures. He also has downplayed speculation that there is growing pressure from inside his party for reconciliation.
“I would not characterize it as pressure — it has just been mentioned,” he said. “It’s some Democrats, some in Congress, but it hasn’t risen to the level of pressure. Just musings, basically.”
Sean Lengell contributed to this report.