Dodging a Filibuster

Posted March 31, 2009, at 10:26 p.m.

Discontent is growing over a legislative tactic that the Obama administration may use to push through its health, energy and education programs. Called “budget reconciliation,” it sounds complicated, but it’s really very simple.

In short, it is a method for getting these hotly debated proposals through the Senate by simple majority instead of the 60 votes necessary to defeat a filibuster. One or more of the major Obama measures would be incorporated into the pending budget resolution, along with “reconciliation instructions.” The House and Senate would agree on a budget outline, then “reconcile” the outline with policy issues, and finally approve the result by majority vote in each house.

In the more closely divided Senate, the Democrats would need only 50 of their 58 votes, plus that of Vice President Joe Biden if necessary to break a tie. Not one Republican vote would be required.

The House has already opened the way for the maneuver by clearing a budget resolution containing reconciliation instructions for health care and education. The Senate’s bill has omitted the reconciliation instructions, but they could be added in the Senate-House conference.

The legislative device originated in the mid-1970s as a way to streamline action to restrain deficits by limiting debate and avoiding filibusters.

Senate Republicans have been denouncing the possible strategy as a violation of proper procedure. Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, ranking minority member of the Budget Committee, called it “an act of violence.” Some Democrats are wary of the tactic. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, said reconciliation “doesn’t work very well for writing major substantive legislation.”

Sean Hannity, the conservative talk show host on Fox News, went further. He said it would allow the Obama administration to pass legislation “without any Republican even having an opportunity to vote.” His guest, the former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, chimed in, saying that the tactic would “bypass the entire system of the American government.” They were wrong, since the procedure provides for a vote by both houses of Congress.

They are also hypocritical since Republicans used the procedure when they controlled Congress, most notably to pass the Bush administration’s tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. Sen. Gregg himself used reconciliation in 2005 when he was chair of the Senate Budget Committee to try to push through a provision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

Critics rightly fear that a resort to budgetary reconciliation, while it might permit approval of the major Obama goals, would poison the political atmosphere and jeopardize any future bipartisanship.

In the end, however, the outcome appears up to the Republicans. If they almost solidly oppose these reform measures, despite widespread public support for them, the Democrats may feel forced to take the reconciliation route.

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