The Trouble With 'Reconciliation'

March 10, 2010

As Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her lieutenants cajole, entreat and threaten House Democrats to approve the Senate health-care bill, they argue that any problem with it can be fixed before it becomes law.

Pro-life House Democrats are deeply disturbed by the Senate abortion-funding language. Blue Dogs are upset by the fact that the Senate bill adds hundreds of billions of dollars to the deficit. Liberals are angry that it doesn't include a "public option." Democrats from Republican-leaning districts are concerned about backroom deals that greased it through the Senate. And some Democrats are unhappy with the Senate bill's tax on the "Cadillac" insurance plans of their allies in Big Labor.

Fear not, sayeth Speaker Pelosi, all will be fixed with the magic dust known as "reconciliation"—a process that allows budget and spending bills to move through the Senate with 51 votes instead of 60. There's only one problem: Senate Republicans plan to use every parliamentary tool at their disposal to stymie any fix that gives House Democrats cover for voting for health-care reform. If the House approves the Senate bill with some warts intact, then House Democrats will own it.

There is no guarantee that Senate rules will allow the GOP to block every reform House Democrats want. Vice President Joe Biden, who is also the president of the Senate, has enormous leverage to overrule the Senate's parliamentarian to tilt the process in his party's direction. But House Democrats can't be sure when they vote for the Senate bill that its problems will be fixed before the president signs health reform into law.

The Senate bill's tax increases and Medicare benefit cuts kick in right away while its benefits (subsidies for health-care coverage) don't start until 2013 and aren't fully operational for seven years. So there are lots of reasons for Democrats to worry that voters will punish them for passing this reform.

Their leaders can say it's better to pass a bad bill than no bill, and that there's plenty of time to cast the reform in a good light before the November elections. But that will be cold comfort to the 83 Democrats in districts carried by George W. Bush or John McCain—including the more than 40 Democrats in districts that the GOP carried in all three of the presidential elections since 2000.

The polling landscape is littered with warning signs for Democrats. A Newsweek poll this week found that 62% of independents oppose Barack Obama's health-care plan. A Rasmussen poll, also out this week, found strong opposition to the president's health-care reform was twice as intense as strong support.

Passage of the Senate health-care bill will make a GOP takeover of the House more likely this fall, especially if all Republican candidates pledge to make pushing for repeal their first order of business next year.

If the health-care bill passes it will probably even hurt Democrats who vote against it. Why? Because voters who are unhappy with any reform the president signs into law may be open to the argument that Democrats can't be trusted to run Congress.

If Democrats use reconciliation to enact health-care reform, this fight isn't likely to end this year. Democrats are resorting to reconciliation because that would allow them to avoid a Republican filibuster. That leaves Republicans free to use the same process to repeal ObamaCare that Democrats are using to enact it. It means that for the next several election cycles every GOP Senate candidate can campaign on the promise to be that 51st vote for repeal.

House Democrats are being asked to cast a potential career-ending vote based on their faith that the Senate, with Mr. Obama's blessing, will undo all the disastrous elements of this bill. A year ago that trust might have existed. Today, after all the ugliness this process has created and all the intra-party acrimony it has caused, that trust appears to have disappeared. Some House Democrats have told reporters that they won't make Mr. Obama's latest deadline for passing reform (March 18), and Mrs. Pelosi seems unable to deliver the votes she needs. It seems the beginning of a revolt is underway among House Democrats.

The political costs to Democrats of the epic misadventure that is health-care reform have become more evident every day. The president made his 52nd speech on the subject yesterday but appears increasingly unable to affect the outcome. It's now all on the speaker's shoulders.

House Democrats would be foolish to trust a process that has deeply alienated the American public. Republicans know that and are determined to make House Democrats think hard about the price they will pay for passing this health-care monstrosity.

This article originally appeared on on Wednesday, March 10, 2010.

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