By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Senior Democrats conceded Wednesday that using the reconciliation process was their last, best, and perhaps only hope of getting a healthcare bill through Congress and to President Barack Obama's desk for his signature. According to Sen. Tom Harkin, Senate Democratic leaders have made the decision to go the "all or nothing" route rather than try to continue negotiations with the Republicans on a bipartisan compromise. Before they can do that however, the Iowa Democrat told Politico, the House of Representatives would first have to pass--unchanged--the legislation that cleared the upper chamber last December. At the same time, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has to demonstrate he has the votes to pass the reconciliation bill in the Senate.
Using reconciliation to make substantive changes in federal law, as the healthcare bill would do, is not unprecedented--but it is almost never used on issues of this magnitude outside of Congress's authority where deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility are concerned. "Reconciliation is therefore the wrong place for policy changes," then-Sen. Barack Obama said in December of 2005.
"The reconciliation process appears to have lost its proper meaning," Obama said on the Senate floor during a debate over changes to the federal Temporary Aid to Needy Families program, adding that the use of reconciliation to deal with those changes meant that "A vehicle designed for deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility has been hijacked to facilitate reckless deficits and unsustainable debt."
It's a confusing and convoluted strategy to bring an end to a confusing and convoluted debate, not between the Democrats and the Republicans but between the Democrats and the American people--who have consistently said that the more they know about Obama's approach to healthcare reform, the less they have liked it.
The president came out with yet another set of ideas in the remarks he delivered Wednesday--little of which are applicable to the current legislative debate because success, as he would define it, depends on the House passing a bill the Senate has already approved. And that, as Shakespeare might have said, "is the rub."
When the healthcare bill first passed the House, it was by the barest of margins. Now, thanks to the death or resignation of a couple of others, more members currently in the House voted against the bill than voted for it, including 39 Democrats who voted no the first time around.
This creates a challenge for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi--who must find at least four additional votes to pass the Senate bill while at the same time not losing any of the Democrats who voted for the bill last time after tough--some would side "ironclad"--language was added to prevent federal funds from being used to pay for abortion and abortion-related services.
Right now, speculation is high among Republican opponents of the bill that Pelosi has settled on nine members--retiring Reps. Brian Baird of Washington State and John Tanner and Bart Gordon of Tennessee as well as Virginia Reps. Rick Boucher and Glenn Nye, New York Reps. Scott Murphy and Michael McMahon, Florida Suzanne Kosmas, and Maryland's Frank Kratovil as the votes she can most likely flip from "no" to "yes."
It's an interesting strategy. As retiring members, Baird, Tanner, and Gordon have nothing to lose by changing their votes and could, perhaps, find cushy federal jobs somewhere in the executive branch waiting for them at the end of the line should they change their votes--although to make any kind of formal arrangement in that regard would be both wrong and illegal. Others on the list, like Murphy, Kosmas, and Kratovil, are considered highly endangered, holding seats that were once safely Republican until scandal or party division helped the Democrats pick them up.
At the end of the day, it is not at all clear that the math works, either in the Senate or the House, and that enough votes can be found to make some version of Obamacare the law of the land--but that doesn't mean the Democrats won't continue to try.