MIAMI -- The first big threat to the president's health-care reform package did not come during the fabled August 2009 recess of town-hall protests, or when the public option failed to pass the Senate, or when Scott Brown won his Senate seat in Massachusetts. It happened early in the summer of 2009 when the Senate Finance Committee received word from the Congressional Budget Office that an early version of legislation it had produced would cost somewhere around $1.5 trillion.
The score produced howls from reform opponents as well as a months-long, often-painful process for Democratic lawmakers seeking legislative language that scored lower than $1 trillion, a numerical ceiling set by the White House. Ultimately, they made it, producing a bill that cost $940 billion and reduced the deficit by more than $130 billion in its first decade.
Such was the reverence for the CBO, whose nonpartisan scorekeeping has long been considered a chief ingredient of the legislative process.
Until, of course, its findings no longer serve a broader political purpose.
Some of the same Republicans who pounced on that early health-care score have, since taking control of the House of Representatives, made a sustained effort to question the CBO's analytical capacity to judge health-care reform.
"CBO is entitled to their opinion, but they're locked within constraints of the 1974 Budget Act," House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said on Thursday. "Listen, even the actuaries at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid have made clear that this bill will not save the kind of money that was predicted earlier."
There are, of course, constraints on the CBO's ability to judge health care reform, but they cut both ways. The budget office did not, according to reform advocates, adequately score long-term savings from the bill's preventative-care measures -- primarily, Senate aides say, because the budget office didn't have the templates to do so.
But Boehner's comments stood out less for technical concerns than for the tone regarding the budget office itself. The CBO's analysis is not sacrosanct, but it is widely respected and regarded as the impartial referee of legislative differences.
It was unsurprising, then, that Democrats fired back in support of what Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) called "the impartial referee."
"It's incredibly ominous that they are waving away the CBO opinion," Welch told The Huffington Post. "That's catastrophic for any opportunity to maintain budget discipline. If anybody can make up their own numbers, you literally institutionalize an 'Alice In Wonderland' budget process. It is beyond reckless and irresponsible."