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Is it time yet for budget reconciliation?

ASK THIS | February 15, 2010

With the Senate in gridlock will the Democrats turn to a process that requires only a simple majority for passage, not a supermajority? If not, why not? And if they do, is there a June 15 deadline?

By Barry Sussman

Q. Will the Democrats use the budget reconciliation process to enact a jobs bill? To enact health care reform?
Q. How does the budget reconciliation process work?
So now the Republicans are looking at two big victories in the U.S. Senate, thwarting action on a jobs bill in the Senate as well as blocking health care reform. They haven't yet killed a jobs bill; what they did was agree to a version that majority leader Harry Reid deemed so unhelpful that he tore it up.
These are no small accomplishments.
The Republican goals, thought unattainable not long ago, are not only within sight but have already been accomplished for the most part. The first goal is to block President Obama’s main domestic programs, and they’ve achieved that resoundingly. A second goal is to bring down Obama in public esteem, and they have succeeded at that, at least for the time being. And a third goal is to take back as many House and Senate seats as they can this fall. The general consensus is that the more failures there are in Washington – the more things the Republicans block – the more success the GOP will have in elections in November.
That’s politics as a very odd zero-sum game.
So a good question right about now is whether the Democrats will turn to the budget reconciliation process to push back. Under budget reconciliation only 51 votes, not a supermajority of 60, are needed to pass legislation. (Fifty, actually, plus the vice president’s vote.)
One observer, Lou Dubose, argues strongly for that in his Washington Spectator newsletter (subscription required).
Noting the Republican victories in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, Dubose says Obama has no coattails and asks, “How did things go so bad so fast?” His answer is, “the president got punked. The Republican minority outsmarted Obama and the Democrats in Congress.” The punking began with having tax cuts account for 40 percent of the $787 billion stimulus bill in a failed attempt to get Republican votes (it got zero GOP votes in the House, three in the Senate). It is government spending, not tax cuts, Dubose pointed out, that creates jobs.
Obama brought some of the punking on himself, Dubose suggests, by putting health care reform in the hands of Max Baucus of Montana. Baucus has taken almost $3 million from health care interests in his career. His final product reflects that, and though it is far weaker than the House bill, it still got not a single Republican vote. (Baucus also was a main figure, along with Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), in writing the jobs bill that Reid disassembled.)
Dubose notes that the day after Obama’s State of the Union address, California Democrat Henry Waxman, who helped craft the House’s health care reform bill, said “the time has come to use the reconciliation process, to let ‘the majority’ in both houses decide.”
The media haven’t written much about reconciliation. It’s time they did.
Last summer, Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, one of those who worked with Baucus, said reconciliation is an acceptable option that he would support. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), chairwoman of the House Rules Committee, has put out a three-page paper giving a little history of the budget reconciliation process. In it she notes that “the Budget Act specifies that Congressional Action on reconciliation legislation should be completed by June 15.” Reporters need to confirm what "should be considered" means.
The reconciliation process was narrowly defined when first enacted in 1974 but has been broadened since. Reporters need to confirm whether a jobs bill and health care reform meet its requirements, one of which is that a bill may not increase the deficit beyond ten years after measure is enacted.
If Democrats go that route there will be a nasty fight. Wrote Dubose:
When Democrats suggested budget reconciliation as a possible route to health care reform in February of last year, New Hampshire Republican Senator Judd Gregg described it as an "act of violence" against Republicans, "…running over the minority, putting them in cement and throwing them in the Chicago River." (An idea some might find appealing.)
Gregg is as disingenuous as he is rhetorically over the top. In 1994, he was a freshman Senator using budget reconciliation to move pieces of Newt Gingrich's Contract With America through the Senate. In 2005, he argued that budget reconciliation should be used to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
For the public, according to opinion polls, it won’t be enough come November for Democrats to blame Republicans for gridlock. Unless they can overcome the gridlock, Obama and the Democrats in Congress lose. If the reconciliation process is available, is there any reason for them not to use it? Or why they haven’t already?

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