There’s a powerful weapon buried in the $3.6 trillion 2010 budget agreement that Congress passed Wednesday without any Republican support.
It’s a fast-track rule called reconciliation, and it means that the president can move two of his top priorities – healthcare and education reform – with only a simple majority of votes in the Senate, instead of the 60-vote threshold that has derailed countless reforms in the past.
President Obama, marking his 100th day in office Wednesday, won’t need to sign the agreement. It's not legally binding. But it does lay a path for moving an ambitious agenda, including a plan to jump-start a conversion to cleaner energy. With budget reconciliation, it also gives the majority an edge in moving those priorities through the Senate.
Democrats had considered including the president’s third priority, clean energy reform, on a possible fast-track as well. But opposition from senators in coal-producing states proved too powerful an obstacle. On March 12, eight Democrats and 25 Republicans sent a letter to the Senate Budget Committee urging that reconciliation not be used to enact a cap-and-trade regime for controlling global warming. They warned that it was likely to impact “nearly every feature of the US economy.”
“Legislation so far-reaching should be fully vetted and given appropriate time for debate, something the budget reconciliation process does not allow,” they wrote.
In a booming voice during Wednesday evening’s vote, Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia registered his opposition to the resolution over the possible use of reconciliation to pass health care and education reforms. It violates the intent and spirit of the budget process, he says.
Sens. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana, and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who yesterday pulled out of the Republican Party, also voted against the budget resolution. The resolution passed the House earlier Wednesday on a 233-to-193 vote, also with no GOP votes in support.
Now comes the hard part – moving those priorities into law.
Democrats say they doubt that the Senate will have to rely on reconciliation to pass healthcare reform.
“Most of the participants in healthcare negotiations have come to the conclusion that that is not the way to reform,” said Sen. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, after the vote.
Senator Conrad, on record opposing the use of reconciliation, nonetheless endorsed the package as a conferee. Challenged on the floor by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee to explain that inconsistency, he said: "If I hadn't agreed, I wouldn't have been a conferee. There are higher powers around here."
Senate Republicans concede that when they were in the majority, they used reconciliation to pass elements of the Bush tax cut.
Anticipating the impact of fast-tracking education reform, the Consumer Bankers Association called on Congress to "adopt a deliberative process" for reforms that anticipate overhauling the system for financing student loans.
CBA director of government relations Marcia Sullivan issued the following statement:
"With the budget resolution now approved, major changes to student loans and grants are likely this year. To meet the goals set out for these changes in the resolution, it is imperative that alternatives to the administration's proposal be examined through hearings, budgetary analysis, and by listening to all impacted stakeholders, especially students, parents, and schools."
What reconciliation says to a minority party is: "We're going to do this without you, and we have a way of getting that done," says Stanley Collender, a budget expert at Qorvis Communications in Washington.