You Go First! Democrats Clash Over Reconciliation

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Democrats finally seem ready to act on health care reform, and for perhaps the first time in the entire year-long health care reform debate, they’re speaking–openly–about the likelihood that they’ll invoke the budget reconciliation process to make some tweaks to the Senate’s health care bill. But there remains no clear path forward, with the House and Senate still jockeying over who will make the first move, and even Senate Democrats divided on how the process should work in their chamber and who among them gets to decide on it.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she won’t pass the Senate bill until the reconciliation process is complete. And Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) says the Senate can’t do reconciliation until after the House acts on the Senate bill. Has an unstoppable force just met an immovable object?

Not necessarily.House and Senate aides privately point out that this is a question being worked out among leadership, and that the decision is not Conrad’s to make. And a Senate leadership aide points me to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s statements from yesterday where he said “nothing’s off the table” with respect to reconciliation.

Still, Conrad says the question–can the Congress pass a reconciliation bill before the House passes the Senate health care bill?–is his to answer.

“At the end of the day it’s the chairman of the Budget Committee’s [job],” he told me after a joint House-Senate health care meeting.

He went on to explain his position. He says it’s logistically impossible to pass a reconciliation bill, which is meant to amend a separate bill that hasn’t passed. “I don’t know how you would deal with the scoring, I don’t know how I’d be able to look you in the eye and say this package reduces the deficit,” he told me.

I asked Conrad why the Congressional Budget Office couldn’t treat a reconciliation bill like any other amendment package, and score it together with the Senate bill.

“I don’t know the answer to that question.”

Admittedly, it’s a very abstract question regarding a rare, if not unprecedented, set of procedural circumstances. But the fact that the Senate’s top budget guy still doesn’t know how leadership plans to proceed is striking, and the sense pervades in the Senate that the House must act first. Sen. Jay Rockefeller also (D-WV) says the House must pass the Senate bill before the reconciliation process touches off. Other Senate Democrats have weighed the possibility of sending the House a letter, signed by 50-plus members, vowing to act on reconciliation if the House enacts the Senate bill first.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at brian@talkingpointsmemo.com
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