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Hoping for Cloture: Senate Liberals Drop Reconciliation Weapon In Fight for Health Reform

What happens if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can't get the votes he needs from conservaDems and Joe Lieberman to shut down a filibuster before a final vote on health care reform?

What happens if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can’t get the votes he needs from conservaDems and Joe Lieberman to shut down a filibuster before a final vote on health care reform?

For months, many strategically savvy progressives have pointed to the obscure budget reconciliation process as an end-run around a filibuster, a weapon to hold in reserve. Reconciliation allows important budget-related measures to be debated on the Senate floor with a 20-hour time limit and without facing the risk of a filibuster. As one progressive activist told me yesterday, “It’s important for Democrats to keep reconciliation alive so we can tell conservative Democrats, ‘We don’t need to use you all.”‘

But the chances of this weapon being used – even Sen. Reid hinted in late October it was in his back pocket – are quickly fading as even the Senate’s most liberal champions of a public option are dropping talk of reconciliation as they’re growing in confidence that Reid can get enough votes to allow a floor vote. As one liberal Democratic Senate aide told Truthout, “We’re not hearing a lot of talk about that lately. My senator is confident that his colleagues don’t want to be on the wrong side of history over a procedural vote.”

When the moderate Reid said bluntly Thursday, “I’m not using reconciliation,” staunch champions of the public option, including Sen. Jay Rockefeller, also echoed that view. Politico noted, in exploring three different fast-track maneuvers to speed up passage (with a “mini-conference” between both Houses as the most likely), the waning interest in reconciliation:

And the last option on the table is a procedural motion known as reconciliation, which would allow Democrats to circumvent the 60-vote threshold and pass parts of the bill with a simple majority.
But Democrats have suggested going this route would require a bill to go back through the committee process before coming to the floor, which would significantly slow it down. It would also open up the bill to even more procedural attacks by Republicans. And because it’s a budgetary maneuver, reconciliation would gut the bill of many important policy provisions that don’t affect spending.
It has become an even tougher sell among progressives who had previously championed it as a way to ensure that the bill has a strong public option.
Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who said he favored the maneuver in August, said Tuesday that he doesn’t want Reid to use it, and he doesn’t believe the leader will.
“Reconciliation doesn’t work,” Rockefeller said, adding that if he had favored it in the past, he “must have been drunk.”

Perhaps the biggest wake-up moment for liberals banking on reconciliation if needed as a way to secure reasonable health reform came on Wednesday’s Rachel Maddow Show. Maddow was apparently taken by surprise when Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health and Labor Committee, denounced using reconciliation (at the 7:40 minute mark). As The Hill reported:

Using budget reconciliation to pass the Senate’s health bill would be the worst thing liberals could hope for, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said Wednesday night.
Harkin, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, downplayed the benefits to using reconciliation, a maneuver that would allow Democrats to pass a bill with only a simple majority of votes, instead of the 60 needed to bypass a filibuster.
“That would probably be the worst thing we could do right now because of deadlines and dates, if this were to go to reconciliation now, it would not be written by my committee – which is a very progressive committee – it would be written by the Budget committee,” Harkin told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow in an interview.
“That has all kinds of implications for how this bill might be drafted by the Budget committee,” he added.
Harkin said that some of the key provisions his committee had authored, including Harkin’s trademark prevention and wellness provisions, would fall by the wayside if the Budget committee, which is chaired by centrist Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), got its hands on the legislation.
“If we go to reconciliation, all that falls by the wayside,” he said.
Harkin rejected a suggestion by Maddow that allowing the Senate to bypass centrist Democrats like Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) would make the bill more to liberals’ liking.

Despite the brave front Democrats present, Reid himself concedes he can’t count on having all 60 votes through the entire process. The vote expected Saturday is only the first of at least three procedural votes that can be filibustered before a final vote is taken, and if the “opt-out” public option remains in it, there’s a still a decent chance that Sen. Joe Lieberman could join the Republicans in a filibuster.

Even those who believe the reconciliation option should be used if necessary concede that it presents its own set of problems. Judy Feder, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a professor of public policy at Georgetown, says, “It’s complicated and some aspects of the health care bill are put at risk. But it’s something if needed that can be used.”

Still she and other experts note that there are a host of procedural objections allowed under the even more arcane “Byrd rule” to challenge non-budgetary items. Those roadblocks could jettison a wide variety of popular elements of the bill, including virtually all the restrictions on insurance company abuses and preexisting condition rules. As Feder says, “Reconciliation has its own set rules and budgetary points of order. It’s essential that everything has to be related to the budget and spending.”

(Special note: Perhaps the quickest way to learn about the basics of the reconciliation process is to listen to this less than five-minute podcast by the Jim Horney, the director of federal fiscal policy at the Center for Budget and Policy.)

From the most influential liberal blogs to a campaign launched by the Howard Dean-founded Democracy for America, progressives have argued this year that there was no need to kow-tow to centrists and water down health care reform. Why? We had the silver bullet of reconciliation to push through real reform with just 51 votes.

As of Thursday, some liberals were still holding to that view, vaguely hoping Reid would turn to reconciliation if members of the Democratic caucus defect at any point to join a filibuster. Here’s how Open Left’s Chris Bowers read the tea leaves on reconciliation:

Reconciliation rarely came to the forefront in public discussions of health care, which almost always made it pretty “unlikely” that the Senate would use reconciliation. In fact, back in April, the Senate did not even include an option to use reconciliation health care in the budget, and only added it later on at the behest of the House.
The remaining questions are reconciliation are two-fold:
1. If the current bill reaches an impasse as the final vote nears, is Reid more willing to make concessions to Landrieu, Lieberman, Lincoln, Nelson and others than he is to use reconciliation? The answer is probably “more willing to make concessions.”
2. How late in the game can the bill still be split into two, with the regulatory measures passing through 60 votes and things like the public option passing with only 51? The answer here, I believe, is as late as the conference committee between the House and Senate. Right up until the very end.

A veteran health reform advocate told Truthout that he had an even gloomier view if the threat of reconciliation isn’t brandished now by strong Democratic champions of the public option. “There is a dangerous game of chicken going on,” he said. “If any of the four [Senators Mary Landrieu, Ben Nelson, Joseph Lieberman and Blanche Lincoln] won’t allow a vote to happen, it’s my understanding that Reid and the White House are thinking of substituting a weaker bill with a ‘trigger’ or whatever.”

He concludes, “It’s important that reconciliation be kept on the table.” Right now, though, it doesn’t even seem to be in the room.

Yet, as Chris Bowers noted, a bit wistfully, “Then again, it was never very likely that the Senate would include a public option of any sort in the health care bill, and that did happen.”

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