The Republican Party's (surprise) opening speaker, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) used his allotted time to make a strong -- and largely misleading -- case against the use of reconciliation to pass health care legislation. In response, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) scoffed at his rendering of history. President Barack Obama, meanwhile, refused to answer whether he would rule out using the parliamentary procedure as a way to get health care legislation to an up-or-down vote.
Speaking shortly after Obama's opening remarks, the Tennessee Republican offered a "suggestion" for Democrats about how to make the summit a "bipartisan and truly productive session":
"Renounce this idea of going back to the Congress and jamming [it] through on a partisan vote through a little-used process we call reconciliation," he said. "It's not appropriate to use [reconciliation] for 17 percent of the economy."
This is a bit misleading. Democrats are not proposing the use of reconciliation to pass the entire health care package. Rather, they seem poised to pass the Senate's version of reform through regular order (with the House voting on the exact bill) and then resorting to reconciliation to pass amendments to the legislation. This certainly would not encompass 17 percent of the economy. And it will only deal with budget and tax issues (which reconciliation is specifically designed to do).
But Alexander wasn't done there. After insisting that Democrats were trying to run the health care bill through the Senate like a "freight train," he recalled that, just a few years ago, the Democratic Party objected to Republican efforts to get an up-or-down vote for George W. Bush's judicial nominees.
This, again, is misleading. Democrats didn't object to an up-or-down vote for judges. They objected to efforts by the Republican Party to essentially do away with the entire filibuster -- deemed "the nuclear option" because it was such a major change of Senate rules. Reconciliation, by contrast, is already written into the Senate rules and Democrats would be exercising their legal prerogative should they use it.
Shortly after Alexander spoke, indeed, Senate Majority Harry Reid (D-Nev.) felt compelled to correct the record, scoffing that the Tennessean was talking about reconciliation "as if it was something that has never been done before."
"Now we, as leadership here, have not talked about reconciliation as the only way out of this," Reid added. "Of course, it is not the only way out. But remember, since 1981, reconciliation has been used 21 times, mostly by Republicans... Reconciliation isn't something that has never been done before."
Obama, meanwhile, ducked the issue, essentially refusing to rule out going down this route when he chimed in with the following:
"Rather than start at the outset talking about legislative process and what's going to happen in the Senate, the House and this and that, what I suggest is that we talk about the substance, how to help the American people deal with costs, coverage, insurance, these other issues. And we might surprise ourselves and find out that we agree more than we disagree. And that would then help to dictate how we move forward. It may turn out, on the other hand, there is too big of a gulf. And then we'll have to figure out how we proceed from there."