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Dems Prepared to Go it Alone

August 24, 2009 - by Donny Shaw

Despite all the talk of finding a bipartisan compromise on healthcare reform, Republicans and Democrats have moved further apart on what should be in the bill, not closer. The Democrats had originally aimed to pass a healthcare bill in both the Senate and the House before leaving for the August recess, knowing that if Republicans were able to delay, they would start to sense blood and would move in for the kill.

There’s always been a procedural option available for Democrats to pass healthcare without any Republican votes. It’s called budget reconciliation, and it would allow for a substantial portion of the Democrats’ bill to get through the Senate with only 51 votes. Pundits and bloggers have speculated for months that if they couldn’t pass a bill before the August recess, Democrats would come back in September and use the budget reconciliation process to get it done. Now, Senate Democrats are beginning to suggest that that may be the case:

Senate Democrats said Sunday that they were fleshing out plans to pass health legislation, particularly the option of a new government-run insurance program, with a simple majority, instead of the 60 votes that would ordinarily be needed to overcome a filibuster.

After consulting experts in Senate rules and procedure, the Democrats said they were increasingly confident that they could legislate creation of a public plan in a way that would withstand challenges expected from Republicans.

Last Friday, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid [D, NV] signaled the Democrats’ openness to using reconciliation by saying they were committed to passing a bill “by any legislative means necessary.” On Sunday, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Schumer [D, NY], the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat, also indicated that things were headed in that direction:

Mr. Schumer said it was “looking less and less likely” that Republicans would support Democratic proposals to subsidize coverage for tens of millions of the uninsured. And Senate Democratic leaders said they had little hope that the chairman of the Finance Committee, Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, would be able to forge a bipartisan compromise.

In the last week, Democrats have begun to talk openly of using a procedure known as budget reconciliation to pass a health bill in the Senate with a simple majority, assuming no Republican support. To do that, under Senate rules, they would probably need to show that the public plan changed federal spending or revenues and that the effects were not “merely incidental” to the changes in health policy.
Democrats believe they could clear this hurdle by demonstrating that the public plan would save money or cost money.

“If a public plan is shown to have a cost to the government that affects outlays or revenues, it could be included in a health care bill using reconciliation procedures,” said Martin P. Paone, a former Senate aide who has been consulted by Senate Democrats.

Blommberg is reporting that the Obama Administration may be on board too:

President Barack Obama is likely in September to end Democratic efforts to work with Republicans on health-care legislation and press for a party-line vote if the stalemate on the issue in the U.S. Senate persists, a person close to the White House said.

The president and his advisers have started devising a strategy to pass a measure by relying only on the Democratic majority in each house of Congress, said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

For more detailed information on how exactly the reconciliation process works, see this diary on Congress Matters. This is the same procedure that was used by Senate Republicans under President Bush to pass his first round of tax cuts. It’s been used over 20 times in the past 35 years, by both parties. It’s most recent use was in 2007, when the Democrats in Congress invoked it to cut subsidies to student-loan providers.

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