Hoping to trip up health care reform as it enters its final procedural stages, leading Republicans are trying to sow doubts in the minds of House Democrats that the Senate will end up fixing the legislation in ways that they like.
Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) admitted, during a press conference organized by health policy journal Health Affairs on Thursday, that his role now is to make skeptical House Democrats even more doubtful that the Senate can change the bill it passes using reconciliation. He insisted that tough votes on non-health care related topics are bound to come up, raised the specter that the reconciliation process will shut the Senate down, and even questioned whether the president can use reconciliation in the first place.
Asked by the Huffington Post if he was trying to stir uncertainty among Democrats, the New Hampshire Republican replied: "Absolutely. We are trying to open the eyes of our colleagues on the Democratic side who are being solicited with goodies that the boat into which all these goodies are being put may not ever come to dock."
Among those arguments is a very broad argument that Congress can't use reconciliation to fix a bill that hasn't yet been signed into law. Saying that House members were being "fed a lie" that they will be able to include a fix to the Senate bill they were being asked to pass, Gregg warned:
"We have talked this over with the parliamentarian, the language is unequivocally clear, it says reconciliation must change a law. And I'm pretty confident that that will be the view on the Senate floor. "
Should Democrats get beyond the starting gate, Gregg added, the Republican Party has a whole host of procedural hurdles that they will throw in the way. The senator told the gathering of reporters at the National Press Club that he and his colleagues will use arcane parliamentary processes to essentially force Senate Democrats to vote on controversial legislative topics, even if their relevance to the health care bill is ambiguous. Arguing that "everything in the jurisdiction" of the two Senate committees that handle health care -- Finance and HELP -- will be ruled "germane" to debate, he all but pledged to bring up "hot-button topics" like immigration, gun rights and certainly abortion as a means of forcing uncomfortable votes.
"Now you ask yourself, if you are a senator from the Democratic side of the aisle, do you really need to put yourself through this just to help out the president and the Democrats' side of the aisle in the House when you already have gotten what you want..." he said.
"I think that's a reach and it should cause questions for Democrats in the House."
The most ominous threat made by the New Hampshire Republican was a pledge to essentially bleed the reconciliation process to death. Gregg used his preamble to remind viewers that the day before, he and 40 of his Republican colleagues signed a letter pledging to oppose efforts to waive the so-called Byrd Rule during reconciliation. The Byrd rule is designed to ensure that reconciliation bills aren't used for policy changes, and requires 60 votes to waive. The GOP plan, Gregg was forecasting, will be to point to literally any and every sentence in the final reconciliation product, protest that it is of non-budgetary significance, and oppose Democratic efforts to get 60 votes by uniting in mass behind efforts to waive the rule.
"The House should note that yesterday, 41 Senate Republicans signed a letter that said they will not waive Byrd points of order," the Senator said. "It takes 60 votes to waive a Byrd point of order. So it is pretty obvious that everything that is Byrd-able is going to be knocked out. So that puts [a] fairly big bunch of holes in this small [reconciliation] bill. To the extent they are Byrd-able they are going to be gone."
The whole session, which lasted about an hour, was a remarkable illustration of how disinterested the Republican Party actually is in the substantive aspects of the health care bill -- so dedicated are they to simply stop the process in its tracks. Indeed, at one point, Gregg seemed to concede that the GOP will vote against more restrictive abortion language because they are ultimately committed to voting against non-budgetary amendments in bloc.
The most vivid illustration of this came when discussion turned to the sweatheart deals that President Obama has pledged to remove using reconciliation. Republicans have routinely mocked these legislative gifts as a form of bribery that taints the entire health care reform product. On Thursday morning, however, Gregg -- in another effort to give Democrats pause -- gleefully discussed how they might remain in the legislation in the end.
"[I]f reconciliation doesn't pass they can't take it out," he said. "That's the law. And that will be the law... That's a pretty big role of the dice [for the House to assume they will be take out]. That's the whole point here. They are selling something they can't necessarily deliver."