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Originally published Sunday, March 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Why "reconciliation" stirs up hard feelings

Republicans are in a tizzy that Democrats are threatening to use the budgetary procedure known as reconciliation — it reconciles policy with fiscal guidelines — to overhaul the health-care system, possibly enact legislation on climate change and rewrite education policy.

The New York Times

The term "reconciliation" typically conveys a sense of rapprochement reminiscent of restored ties between the United States and China or Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. But in Congress, reconciliation can mean the opposite, conjuring up relationships more along the lines of Yankees vs. Red Sox or Microsoft vs. Apple.

Republicans are in a tizzy that Democrats are threatening to use the budgetary procedure known as reconciliation — it reconciles policy with fiscal guidelines — to overhaul the health-care system, possibly enact legislation on climate change and rewrite education policy.

They have good reason to fret. If Democrats successfully invoke reconciliation, such major bills could pass by a simple majority vote, denying Republicans the filibuster, their sole remaining weapon to influence federal policy given the Democratic grip on government.

"It stinks," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said of the prospect.

But Republicans face a couple of problems as they push back against the idea, chief of which is that they used the process on multiple occasions, notably when enacting more than $1 trillion in tax cuts in 2001.

That means critics can have a field day lampooning Republicans and asking them — as Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., did repeatedly the other day — why reconciliation was such a good idea when it came to giving tax cuts to millionaires but such a bad one when it comes to trying to provide health care to average Americans.

The record is also replete with statements by Republicans such as Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the party's leader on budget issues, praising the logic of reconciliation.

"We are using the rules of the Senate here," Gregg said in 2005 as he fought off Democratic complaints that reconciliation was wrongly being employed to block filibusters against opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. "Is there something wrong with majority rules? I don't think so."

But he and other Republicans, with some Democrats concurring, say using reconciliation to accomplish President Obama's sweeping objectives would distort the intent of a procedure meant mainly to lower the deficit, not restructure the national economy.

"It is not appropriate to use reconciliation, which cuts off the role of the Senate, on something as broad and extensive as rewriting the health-care laws of this country," Gregg said, explaining why he is against reconciliation after he was for it.

But the lengthy record of Republican support for fast-tracking budget-related bills dilutes their ability to challenge Democrats on the issue. They have to hope that enough Senate Democrats stick to their view that it would be too divisive to use the Senate shortcut for policy as fundamental as health-care changes or a new limit on carbon pollution.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., chairman of the Budget Committee, has taken that position, as has Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and chairman of the committee that would have to write a good chunk of any health-care measure. Other Senate centrists have challenged the reconciliation idea, raising the possibility that Democrats might not be able to pass a final budget if it allows for the filibuster end-run.

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The resistance of some Senate Democrats infuriates many House members and Obama administration officials.

They think it would be foolish for Democrats to give up their best leverage when Republicans have shown little inclination to cooperate with them or Obama on major legislation.

At a minimum, they say, reconciliation has to remain on the table to force Republicans to get serious about working with Democrats. As a result, House Democrats included the possibility of reconciliation in their budget.

Some Republicans have likened the building struggle over budget reconciliation to the 2005 Senate fight over Democratic filibusters against President George W. Bush's judicial nominees.

Republicans warned that they would invoke the "nuclear option" and change Senate rules to ban filibusters against executive-branch nominations. Democrats characterized that as an assault on the nature of the Senate and threatened to bring the chamber to a standstill.

The showdown was averted. But now that their party is in the minority, some Republicans have begun suggesting that if Democrats insist on reconciliation, they will gum up the Senate to the greatest extent possible, using their remaining procedural rights to essentially shut the chamber down.

Democrats say Republicans are doing a pretty good job of slowing business in the Senate. They say maneuvers such as forcing clerks to read bills in their entirety and other such delaying tactics would cement the Republican image as obstructionists.

Republicans have another hurdle: The so-called nuclear option would have represented a change in Senate rules. But as Gregg pointed out in 2005, reconciliation is allowed and Republicans have relied on it many times, a point Democrats, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, intend to make again and again.

"Some of these same people on the Republican side didn't have a problem with it — and we have their quotes — when President Bush wanted to push forward his tax cuts to the wealthiest people in America," Pelosi said.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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