After healthcare summit: Is reconciliation next?

Republicans said after the healthcare summit that Obama and the Democrats appear ready to go it alone on healthcare. That means resorting to a process called reconciliation, which allows measures to pass by a simple majority.

Jason Reed/AP
Proposed health reform legislation documents are pictured on a table between Republican congressmen David Camp (L) and Joe Barton during a bipartisan health reform summit between U.S. President Barack Obama and lawmakers at Blair House in Washington, Thursday.

So, what’s next?

After a day-long White House summit on healthcare, Republicans returning to the Senate said that President Obama and the Democrats appear ready to go it alone on this issue.

“They’re not interested in putting a 2,700-page bill on the shelf,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, referring to GOP demands that the president start over with a step-by-step approach, focusing on issues on which there is broad agreement.

At the end of the summit, Mr. Obama said, “I did not propose something complicated just for the sake of being complicated.” He added, “The reason we didn’t do it is it turns out baby steps don’t get you to the place where people need to go.”

To get a bill without 41 Senate Republicans means resorting to a process called reconciliation. The process allows measures that meet certain budget criteria to pass by a simple majority, instead of the 60 votes now typical for major bills.

In the dictionary, “reconciliation” means bringing together, conciliation, or fence mending. But on the floor of the US Senate, it’s pure procedural warfare.

Liberal activists are urging Democrats to get back to the principle of majority rule in the Senate, now seen as the graveyard for much of the Obama agenda. But moderate Democrats are wary of a move that could further alienate the public from a comprehensive healthcare reform.

A new Gallup poll, released Thursday, reports that most Americans oppose using reconciliation, by a margin of 52 percent to 39 percent. Nine percent were unsure.

On Feb. 23, Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, the leading in-house defender of the Senate traditions, urged his colleagues to allow filibusters to run their course and not change rules to block them.

“The Senate is the only place in government where the rights of a numerical minority are so protected. Majorities change with elections. A minority can be right, and minority views can certainly improve legislation,” he wrote in a letter to his Senate colleagues.

“Extended deliberation and debate – when employed judiciously – protect every senator, and the interests of their constituency, and are essential to the protection of the liberties of a free people,” he added.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, says that there could be a role for reconciliation in the healthcare debate, but only “in a very limited way”: First, the House must pass the Senate bill, then use reconciliation procedures to “fix” the bill. “You cannot do the whole healthcare bill through reconciliation. It will not work,” he adds.

If Democrats opt to push healthcare reform through the Senate using reconciliation, “the opposition to it would be bipartisan,” said Senator McConnell after the summit.

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