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Obama gets budget passed. Fast? Yes. Bipartisan? Nope

The House and Senate both approved budget resolutions of about $3.5 trillion, backing key Obama priorities such as green energy and healthcare reform.

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That practice, called reconciliation, was first proposed in the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 to help Congress cut deficits. It cuts off debate in the Senate at 20 hours. Since 1980, reconciliation has been used to pass signature Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 and to open the door to exploration and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

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With Democrats just short of the 60 votes needed to block a filibuster in the Senate, reconciliation could be decisive in passing closely contested bills.

In a bid to block the use of reconciliation to pass a controversial “cap-and-trade” plan that sets a cost on carbon emissions, the Senate voted 67 to 31 this week to insist on a 60-vote threshold for energy legislation.

But Democratic leaders say they still want to hold reconciliation as an option. "The truth is that both parties have used reconciliation to implement the policies assumed in budget resolutions" in the past, said House majority leader Steny Hoyer on the floor of the House Thursday.

Some Senate Democrats are optimistic that there is an emerging bipartisan consensus on healthcare – and that procedural hardball will not be needed.

“We are much further along to getting a bipartisan bill passed on healthcare than we are on global warming,” says Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, who is sponsoring bipartisan legislation on the issue. “I’m convinced I can see a path to 68 to 70 votes for healthcare.”

Republicans promise vigorous opposition. “Over bipartisan opposition, Democrats in Congress passed a budget that clears the way for massive amounts of spending, for the biggest tax hike in history and a doubling of our already crippling national debt,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

“It is a budget that puts the economy on an unsustainable course,” he added.

In a sense, the budget vote is the easy part, analysts say. It is nonbinding and merely sets a frame for tax and spending bills to come. As lawmakers come to terms with the details of legislation, opposition will get tougher.

“Right now, members are staggering under the weight of the numbers they have to deal with," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "But later on, when you’re talking about individual policy proposals and appropriation bills, there you’re talking about issues that are more manageable and members better know better how to deal with them."

He adds: “This budget is like the Grand Canyon: All you can do is look at it in awe.”