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Healthcare reform: Obama's march is still on

President Obama is pushing for passage of healthcare reform by month’s end. Is ‘reconciliation’ that obscure?

By Staff writer / March 9, 2010

President Obama rolls up his shirt sleeves before speaking about healthcare reform at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pa., on Monday.

Charles Dharapak/AP



Defying the inertia of a gridlocked Congress, President Obama is calling on Democrats to move healthcare reform in March, even if it means doing so without a single Republican vote.

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“The United States Congress owes the American people a final, up or down vote on health care,” the president said in a speech on health care reform at Arcadia University on Monday. “It’s time to make a decision. The time for talk is over. We need to see where people stand.”

Republicans called a “Project Code Red,” firing off “robocalls” to the districts of vulnerable Democratic lawmakers, especially those who voted against healthcare reform last year. Mr. Obama this week launched a battery of presidential visits to states and districts where swing votes are to be found, beginning with Missouri and Pennsylvania.

But inside Washington, the outcome could turn on one of Congress’s most obscure and controversial procedures. It’s called “reconciliation” – a process that allows the Senate to ban filibusters, limit debate to 20 hours, and pass legislation by a simple majority vote.

With the prospect of health care winning no Republican votes in either the House or the Senate, supporters say the Senate has no choice but to pass the bill by any means at hand.

“It would be my hope that we would be able to resolve the issue without resorting to reconciliation,” said Sen. Arlen Specter (I) of Pennsylvania on the Senate floor on Monday, adding that the institutional integrity of the Senate – notably, protection of minority rights – is better protected “without going in that direction.”

“But if you have to fight fire with fire and since it is a legitimate means, then we can use it,” he said.

The key to passing a bill through reconciliation is surviving the blizzard of points of order, rulings, and appeals – and the political backlash of using a procedure intended to rein in deficits in order to move a massive reform package.

“The administration and its allies in Congress have tried repeatedly to jam this vision of healthcare through Congress without success. Now they’re doubling down. They’ve got one more tool in their arsenal, and they’re deploying it,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell in a floor speech on March 4.

The Senate has used reconciliation to pass 19 budget measures since 1980, according to the Congressional Research Service. The intent of the 1974 law is to give lawmakers a fast track to bring revenue, spending, and debt-limit levels in line with budget policies. But over time, reconciliation has been used to make broad policy changes on issues ranging from overhauling welfare to enhancing health benefits for children.