Capital Exchange is a new blog featuring debate among some of Washington’s smartest budget and policy experts. –Eric Pianin, Washington Editor and Moderator
Has anyone else used the Casablanca cliché yet? I can’t resist: Using budget reconciliation to pass controversial legislation? I’m shocked! I share Larry Haas’s amusement at the operatic outrage over the use of this procedure to pass part of health care reform. The relevant word here is “part” -- both the House and Senate have already passed health reform by margins I presume Republicans approve: a majority vote in the House and 60-vote super majority in the Senate.
What would happen next (if the Democrats can muster the votes) is that the House would pass the Senate bill, readying it for President Obama’s signature. Perfectly legit.
So reconciliation comes into play to pass not health reform itself, but a package of perfecting amendments to change the Senate bill to make it more palatable to House Democrats. If critics are going to hyperventilate about procedure, they should hyperventilate accurately. Technically, reconciliation would be used to tweak health reform, not pass it.
Another point: Larry gives lots of examples of reconciliation being used to pass big, controversial legislation. How could we forget 1995? Newt Gingrich’s GOP revolutionaries, then in their first year in power, passed a mammoth reconciliation bill that among other things was designed to begin radically changing the big government health care entitlements Medicare and Medicaid. It would have made major cuts to Medicare and changed it in ways that Gingrich said at one point he hoped would make the traditional fee-for-service program “wither away” as seniors were eventually herded into HMOs.
Maybe we forget because President Clinton vetoed it. And all this talk today by Republicans about how important it is to pass big legislation like this on bipartisan votes? No Senate Democrat voted for the Republican reconciliation bill in 1995 (and a Republican defected to vote no). In the House, five of 195 Democrats voted yes. That’s four more votes than the one President Obama got in the House for health reform, but it’s hardly “bipartisan.”
Now that I’ve had my fun, where Republicans have a point is in pointing out the danger of passing transformative legislation on party-line votes. They should know. It hurt them badly in 1995 (along with the government shutdown that followed, of course). By trying to change federal health care programs on almost exclusively party-line votes, the Republicans wound up giving Clinton and the Democrats a club to beat them with -– and in a foreshadowing of today’s debate, the attack that Democrats used to devastating effect was that Republicans wanted to cut Medicare. Passing health reform is still the right thing to do, but there’s no ignoring the fact that it’s a huge political risk.
George Hager is a member of the USA Today editorial board.