Think Tank: Senate Dems Would Be In Bounds To Pass Health Reform Using Reconciliation

Republicans have long howled that use of a Senate procedure known as reconciliation to approve healthcare reform would be out-of-bounds and amounts to a political act of war. An independent think tank, however, finds that use of reconciliation “would be fully consistent with past practice.”

Reconciliation becomes important because bills considered under the procedure cannot be blocked by filibuster from coming to a final vote. That means reconciliation bills need just a majority of 51 votes to pass — not the 60-vote supermajority required to overcome a filibuster.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), up until now, has worked assiduously to avoid the use of reconciliation — compromising much from his original reform proposal in order to marshal the entire 60 Democratic votes he had on Christmas Eve to pass a reform bill.

Since then, Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts has been sworn in as the 41st Republican in the Senate, giving the GOP new filibuster power over healthcare reform — and new currency to the idea of reconciliation.

“Throughout 2009, Democratic leaders in Congress stated their preference for moving health reform legislation through the normal legislative process without using reconciliation. It now seems likely, however, that comprehensive health reform legislation can make it across the finish line only if the reconciliation process is employed,” says a recent report released by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) in Washington.

Some Democrats on Capitol Hill actually see a chance to restore key aspects of health reform using reconciliation that Reid dropped in December so as to win his 60-vote supermajority — particularly the chance to enact a federally run public option alternative to private insurance.

The CBPP report finds that lawmakers have “employed reconciliation many times to make major policy shifts.”

“These include sweeping welfare reform enacted in 1996, massive tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, and creation or expansion of several health coverage programs,” say the authors of the report, Paul Van de Water and James Horney, two budget and health policy experts at CBPP. “Using reconciliation to help enact health reform would be consistent with past congressional practice, as Thomas Mann and Molly Reynolds of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute have explained.”

In that essay, Mann, Reynolds, and Ornstein write: “[T]he precedent for using reconciliation to enact major policy changes [is] much more extensive . . . than Senate Republicans are willing to admit these days.”

The House and Senate first used the budget reconciliation process in 1980. Since then, 19 reconciliation bills have been enacted into law, and three have been vetoed, Van de Water and Horney say in their report.

Indeed, Van de Water and Horney find that the “sharp break with past practice” actually took place under a White House and Congress both controlled by the GOP in 2001, when lawmakers used reconciliation to enact a large tax cut that greatly increased federal deficits and debt.

“Prior to 2001, every major reconciliation bill enacted into law reduced the deficit. In 2003 Congress used reconciliation to pass another round of deficit-increasing tax cuts,” the authors say.

But because a Democratic-controlled House and Senate adopted rules in 2007 preventing Congress from using reconciliation to increase deficits and debt as was done in 2001 and 2003, a health reform bill brought forward under the procedure would have to be deficit-reducing, according to the CBPP report.

“Since rising health costs are the single largest reason for projected long-run deficits, it is appropriate that health reform be considered through the reconciliation process,” the report says.

The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.

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