Enacting changes to the country’s health care system through reconciliation is a bad option. Unfortunately, given congressional Republican leaders’ steadfast opposition to the current reform package, it appears the only option.
The roadblock is in the Senate, where the threat of filibuster requires 60 votes to pass a controversial measure. With the election of Republican Scott Brown to fill Sen. Edward Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts, Democrats no longer have 60 votes in the Senate.
So, an alternative route that would require only 51 votes looks increasingly likely. It is a seldom-used procedure called budget reconciliation. It was devised as a way to help Congress pass its annual budget. When it has been hard to get 60 Senate votes for the whole budget package, the more controversial fund measures have been put into a separate “reconciliation bill” that was ruled exempt from filibuster and thus could be passed by a simple majority.
But the reconciliation procedure is strictly limited so that a majority party can’t use this shortcut to pass any measure that it chooses. Complex Senate rules require that provisions passed in this way must significantly involve federal funds and should not in the long run increase the deficit.
In 1996, a Republican-controlled Congress used reconciliation to pass sweeping changes to the country’s welfare system. Republicans used this system to pass two rounds of tax cuts during the Bush administration; they got around the vast deficit increase by making the cuts renewable after five years. In fact, 14 of the 19 reconciliation bills signed into law since 1980 were signed by GOP presidents.
Now the shoe is on the other foot, and the Democrats may be able to restore some key features of the Obama plan that were dropped in their vain efforts to gain a few Republican votes. But, it also means that they will miss out on some of the good ideas offered by Republican lawmakers.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, who negotiated longest with Democrats on reform legislation, continues to offer suggestions for improving the health care legislation, as does Sen. Susan Collins. Both point to the many areas were the parties agree on fixes.
“The bitter rhetoric and partisan gridlock of the past year on health care legislation has obscured a very important fact: There are many health care reforms that have overwhelming support in both parties,” Sen. Collins said in a statement last week.
Democrats — including President Barack Obama, who belatedly held a health care summit with lawmakers from both parties last week — have missed opportunities to build on that fact, but they’ve been forced to deal with opposition rooted in political advantage, not compromise.
Republican leaders apparently think they can use a health care defeat to regain control of both houses and recapture the White House in 2012. Easing the country’s health care crisis, however, is more important than politics, so Democrats may have no choice but to go it alone to begin a significant overhaul.