'Reconciliation' Could Come Back To Bite Democrats

When it comes to overhauling health care, Democrats say an arcane parliamentary maneuver known as reconciliation is the ultimate answer — a procedure that blocks a GOP filibuster and gets a bill through the Senate with 51 votes. But reconciliation also has perils for Democrats. It will require the House vote for a Senate bill many Democrats oppose. Senate Republicans can also offer endless, politically loaded amendments that must be voted on.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Even if Democrats stay united, they will need to use a specific process to get a bill past Republicans. Its called reconciliation. It allows a bill to pass by a simple majority vote, which means a minority cannot filibuster, talking the bill to death. Although the word reconciliation suggests peacemaking, Republicans fiercely object to using it. And although both parties have used it in the past, its tricky to use it just now.

NPRs David Welna explains.

DAVID WELNA: The House has passed a health care bill and so has the Senate. But Senate Democrats no longer have the 60 votes that got their bill to final passage, and while the House could just pass the Senate bill and send it to the president, many House Democrats dont like that bill. The answer: theyll fix it as best as they can using the reconciliation process. A reconciliation bill, which can include only budget-related items, would be fashioned as a kind of amendment to the Senate bill. It could not be filibustered, but there is a problem.

Mr. BILL HOAGLAND (Lobbyist, CIGNA): Reconciliation cannot amend something thats not law.

WELNA: Thats Bill Hoagland. He's now a lobbyist for the health insurer CIGNA, but for many years he was the Republican staff director for the Senate Budget Committee. Hoagland says the Senate health care bill is far from being law because it's only been approved by one chamber.

Mr. HOAGLAND: So if you're trying to make changes to the health care reform bill to get it more appealing to the House members, they first have to hold their nose, cross their fingers and vote to pass the Senate-passed health care reform bill and send it to the president.

WELNA: And voting first for the Senate bill, says Oregon House Democrat Peter DeFazio, would be a bit like Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown.

Representative PETER DEFAZIO (Democrat, Oregon): I'd say at this point for any House member to vote for something that they object to with the future potential possible prospect that the Senate'll fix it later when later often never comes in Washington, D.C., is an unbelievable leap of faith.

WELNA: Democratic leaders have tried bucking up doubters like DeFazio by seeking assurances from Senate Democrats that they would actually pass a reconciliation bill. But Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad says he can't commit now to a reconciliation bill that by law has to begin in the House.

Senator KENT CONRAD (Democrat, North Dakota): Look, I'm obviously not going to say I will support a package and I've never seen the package.

WELNA: Another pitfall is that the Senate rules on reconciliation bills are a lot more stringent than House rules. That means that what's passed in the House can be challenged as out of order in the Senate. Again, former Senate staffer Bill Hoagland.

Mr. HOAGLAND: Going to have to be very careful about what they put into that reconciliation bill, because I do think the minority in the Senate will clearly raise every point of order they can and make it go back to - and this would be the key - just one vote to knock out something, of course, would send the reconciliation bill back to the House of Representatives and they'd have to vote again.

WELNA: Yesterday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell left no doubt his party would give any reconciliation bill the third degree once it lands in the Senate.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky, Minority Leader): We're going to scrub the bill thoroughly, but I'm not going to just announce in advance what efforts would be made. But you know, obviously, there will be plenty.

WELNA: Senators can also offer an unlimited number of amendments to the reconciliation bill. Former Senate parliamentarian Robert Dove says many could involve politically sensitive issues for Democrats. And each has to be voted on.

Mr. ROBERT DOVE (Former Senate Parliamentarian): That vote counts as a real vote and is used against senators who can claim all they were doing was protecting the budget process but suddenly are on record as refusing to waive the budget act to deal with Guantanamo or trying people in New York. I can imagine the list of amendments will be sent forward.

WELNA: Democrats are bracing for a huge number of amendments that Republicans might offer. The Senate's number two Democrat, Dick Durbin, says it could get to the point where the amendment process has to be cut short.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): This has never been tested in the Senate as to how far is too far when it comes to offering amendments - 20 hours of debate and an endless opportunity for amendments to follow. There's never been a ruling during reconciliation by the chair of, you know, what's dilatory, what is a waste of time. I hope we don't reach that point.

WELNA: Because if that happens, the health care bill might become law. But a controversial ruling to curtail amendments could also create so much bitterness that getting anything else done in the Senate could be next to impossible.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.