House, Senate Budget Clash Looms

The House and Senate will soon meet to merge their two budget resolutions. The House version includes a measure protecting any health care overhaul from Senate filibusters. Republicans warn the final version of the budget could strip them of their most potent legislative weapon.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. The budget plans moving through Congress this week should easily win approval from big Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. The two blueprints are similar. Both project $3.5 trillion in outlays next year but there's one big difference. The House budget contains something called reconciliation instructions and as NPR's David Welna reports, Republicans consider that a political bomb.

DAVID WELNA: In essence putting reconciliation instructions in this year's budget tells the Senate's GOP minority to go take a walk. Legislation mentioned in the budget can pass by a simple majority that's protected from Republican filibusters which takes 60 votes to stop. And this year's House budget provides such protections to the huge issue of healthcare reform. Iowa Democratic Senator Tom Harkin is glad it does.

Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa): The need for reconciliation is so that a few can't block the will of the majority and we need to get health reform done this year.

WELNA: The Senate's budget has no reconciliation instructions even though it's the only chamber where it matters. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer insists the House is not out of line including such instructions.

Representative STENY HOYER (House Majority Leader; Democrat, Maryland): This is the regular order. This is provided for in our rules. It's provided for in our rules so that we can facilitate moving ahead on issues critical to the American public.

WELNA: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConell sharply disagrees.

Senator MITCH MCCONELL (Senate Minority Leader; Republican, Kentucky): I think it's an outrageous power grab.

WELNA: So does Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter who's a key swing voter in the Senate.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): Any such effort would be a colossal mistake.

WELNA: Another Senate Republican, Utah's Orrin Hatch, warns a budget with reconciliation instructions could poison relations in the Senate.

Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): I think it would be an awful thing for them to do but they'll reap the whirlwind if they do - take healthcare. Healthcare is something that has to be put together in a bipartisan way. Whoever tries to ram one side or the other through is going to have a very difficult time in the future.

WELNA: But as Arizona Republican Senator John McCain reminded colleagues this week, Republicans themselves used reconciliation in recent years to push through big tax cuts.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Republicans began this and it was a wrong thing to do. It was a wrong thing to do and sometimes you reap what you sow.

WELNA: Kent Conrad, the Democratic Chair of the Senate Budget Committee, assured a skeptical McCain he does not want healthcare legislation protected by reconciliation.

Senator KENT CONRAD (Chair of the Senate Budget Committee; Democrat, North Dakota): My own belief is that was never the purpose of reconciliation. Reconciliation was really designed to…

Sen. MCCAIN: Senator, you up for a question?

Sen. CONRAD: I'd be happy to.

Sen. MCCAIN: Does the senator really believe that reconciliation will not be part of the final budget resolution?

Sen. CONRAD: Well, I'd say this to the senator, I don't know but I know it's not part of this resolution.

WELNA: That may be true but what's also true is that the House and Senate budget resolutions have to be merged into one and even Democrats like Conrad who say they oppose reconciliation admit that when that final budget emerges in the next two weeks, it's all but certain to contain a political bomb making healthcare reform immune to filibusters.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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