Reconciliation: why healthcare reform 'nuclear option' is deadly

Usually, 'reconciliation' seems like an arcane term. But the look on Senator Lindsey Graham's face when he discussed it Sunday shows how healthcare reform's 'nuclear option' could poison the already-poor state of bipartisanship in the Senate.

By , Staff writer

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    Barbara Boxer (D-CA.) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC.) arrive at the U.S. Capitol for health care votes on December 22, 2009. Senator Graham and others believe 'reconciliation' over healthcare reform may sour already rocky bipartisanship.
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When the word "reconciliation" came up, it was Senator Lindsey Graham's tone more than his words that suggested the political enormity of what might lie ahead in the healthcare reform debate.

Here was Senator Graham, the smiling, chubby-cheeked South Carolina lawmaker asked onto CBS's "Face the Nation" to discuss the need for bipartisanship. And so he had, convincingly, exchanging respectful looks and comments with his Democratic colleague, Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana.

But when host Bob Schieffer mentioned reconciliation – the so-called "nuclear option" that would allow Senate Democrats to pass healthcare reform measures with a simple majority – Graham suddenly looked as though he had been kicked in the teeth.

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First, he strained for a moment of levity: "Let's do a field goal on healthcare. Let's not go for a touchdown and ram it down people's throats."

Immediately after, however, with evident desperation in his voice, he made his plea clearer. "I'll work with you to get a more manageable healthcare bill passed."

But please, he intoned, don't do this.

In an instant, the debate over what seems to be an arcane point of procedure in a legislative body that seems to have no end of arcane legislative procedures took on a human face.

Why reconciliation is a big deal

To many senators, including Graham, these procedures are not roadblocks to effective governance, they are the building blocks of it. The Senate is generally the last word in American legislative politics partly because it is seen as being more collegial and collaborative than its congressional cousin – and these seemingly arcane rules are the reason it is so, some would argue.

What is the significance of requiring a bill to win 60 votes or face a filibuster, after all? It is, at least on one level, an inducement to find compromise – to cross the aisle, to build coalitions.

To Graham, using reconciliation to pass healthcare reform circumvents the very mandate for consensus-building that makes the Senate unique.

Of course, reconciliation has been used before by both parties. But Graham noted that other cases involved at least some cross-party consensus. In this case, not a single Senate Republican voted for the healthcare reform bill.

If Senate Democrats used reconciliation to make changes to their healthcare bill, Republicans would pull out every stop to bring work in the Senate to a halt between now and the November elections, both Graham and Senator Bayh conceded.

The endangered centrist

The warning did not come from far-right ideologue. Graham has built a reputation as a senator willing to cross party lines: backing the closure of Guantánamo and working with Democrats to craft a bipartisan cap-and-trade energy policy.

On a day when he was called to talk about bipartisanship, the subtext was clear: The modes of governance have not changed, but the people who use them have.

For his part, Bayh noted that the only time he ever witnessed the entire Senate coming together for an informal meeting was before President Clinton's impeachment trial and after the 9/11 attacks. He and Graham are proposing a series of monthly all-Senate luncheons to try to restore some of the Senate's traditional collegiality.

"We need friendships across the aisle because that's where you get principled compromise," said Bayh, who has said he is retiring in part because of the partisan inflexibility creeping into the Senate.

In a time when the lack of "principled compromise" is forcing out one of the Senate's strongest centrists, the nuclear option could be a partisan bomb, indeed.

Reconciliation would be "catastrophic," Graham said.

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