Senate Dems: Turnabout’s Fair Play on Reconciliation

Lauren Victoria Burke/WDCPIX.COM

Democratic party leaders have a message for Republicans, who are crying foul over the news that they may get shut out of the health care debate: turnabout’s fair play.

In a memo that was drafted and circulated on background in April, Senate Democrats made the case that using a budget reconciliation bill to pass health care reforms is perfectly within their rights, given the Republicans’ promiscuous use of the same tactic when they were in power. Excerpts of the memo were published by various news outlets back in the spring, but the memo doesn’t appear to have been previously published in its entirety until now. And now, with Democrats ramping up the threat that they’ll invoke the process in the fall, they’re rehashing those same arguments.

“[S]hould Republicans choose not to cooperate [on health care reform], the inclusion of reconciliation instructions [in the budget] provides a backup option which could be used to prevent a filibuster and approve legislation by a majority vote,” the memo reads. “[T]here is nothing unprecedented or unusual about the use of reconciliation.”The memo goes on note that Congress has invoked the reconciliation 19 times since 1980, including in 2001 and 2003 when “the Republican Congress used reconciliation to pass enormous tax cuts.”

“Republicans not only used reconciliation rules to push tax breaks for the wealthy, they also made no meaningful effort to assist the growing number of uninsured Americans,” it reads.

Back in the heyday of the Republican majority, the GOP was bullish on the idea of using the process to circumvent the filibuster, and now Democrats are hoping to bring that inconvenient fact back to haunt them.

“The fact is, all this rule of the Senate does is allow a majority of the Senate to take a position and pass a piece of legislation, support that position,” said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH), who now bemoans the idea, in 2005. “Is there something wrong with majority rules? I don’t think so.”

Back in the Spring, when Congress was debating the budget itself, House leaders made a very similar argument to support including reconciliation instructions in their resolution. But now that Democrats are coming to view the tactic less as a contingency than as a tool of necessity, they’re resurrecting the pitch to lay the rhetorical groundwork for the political firestorm reconciliation will likely set off.

Republicans argue that the budget reconciliation process wasn’t intended for this purpose. On Meet the Press yesterday, Sen. Orrin Hatch said the reconciliation process “has never been used for a substantive approach of one-sixth of the American economy or even a smaller substantive approach.

“That was set up — reconciliation — to solve increasing taxes or lowering taxes or cutting back on public spending or spending more,” he said. But a major part of health care reform–subsidies, Medicaid expansions, surtaxes–involves exactly those sorts of fiscal measures.

If Democrats do turn to reconciliation, Republicans can’t say they weren’t warned. On April 27, Harry Reid sent a letter to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warning him that Republicans had until the fall to be constructive partners on health care reform. And in a final warning call to Republicans, Democrats are saying get with the program or get rolled. “Democrats would strongly prefer to address health care on a bipartisan basis using the normal legislative process,” says the memo. “Instead of debating Senate procedure, the GOP should focus on the problem at hand and work with Democrats in finding solutions.”

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