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Art Levine

Art Levine

Posted: November 19, 2009 11:46 PM

Hoping for Cloture: Senate Liberals Drop Reconciliation Weapon In Fight for Health Reform

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What happens if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can't get the votes he needs from conservaDems and Joe Lieberman to shut down a filibuster before a final vote on health care reform?

For months, many strategically savvy progressives have pointed to the obscure budget reconciliation process as an end-run around a filibuster, a weapon to hold in reserve. Reconciliation allows important budget-related measures to be debated on the Senate floor with a 20-hour time limit and without facing the risk of a filibuster. As one progressive activist told me yesterday, "It's important for Democrats to keep reconciliation alive so we can tell conservative Democrats, 'We don't need to use you all.'''

But the chances of this weapon being used -- even Senator Reid hinted in late October it was in his back pocket -- are quickly fading as even the Senate's most liberal champions of a public option are dropping talk of reconciliation as they're growing in confidence that Reid can get enough votes to allow a floor vote. As one liberal Democratic Senate aide told Truthout.org, "We're not hearing a lot of talk about that lately. My Senator is confident that his colleagues don't want to be on the wrong side of history over a procedural vote."

And while the moderate Reid said bluntly Thursday, "I'm not using reconciliation," staunch champions of the public option, including Senator Jay Rockefeller, also echoed that view. Politico noted, in exploring three different fast-track maneuvers to speed up passage, with a "mini-conference" between both Houses as the most likely, the waning interest in reconciliation:

And the last option on the table is a procedural motion known as reconciliation, which would allow Democrats to circumvent the 60-vote threshold and pass parts of the bill with a simple majority.

But Democrats have suggested going this route would require a bill to go back through the committee process before coming to the floor, which would significantly slow it down. It would also open up the bill to even more procedural attacks by Republicans. And because it's a budgetary maneuver, reconciliation would gut the bill of many important policy provisions that don't affect spending.

It has become an even tougher sell among progressives who had previously championed it as a way to ensure that the bill has a strong public option.

Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who said he favored the maneuver in August, said Tuesday that he doesn't want Reid to use it, and he doesn't believe the leader will.

"Reconciliation doesn't work," Rockefeller said, adding that if he had favored it in the past, he "must have been drunk."


Perhaps the biggest wake-up moment for liberals banking on reconciliation if needed as a way to secure reasonable health reform came on Wednesday's Rachel Maddow Show. Maddow was apparently taken by surprise when Senator Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate health and labor committee, denounced using reconciliation (at the 7:40 minute mark). As The Hill reported: "Using budget reconciliation to pass the Senate's health bill would be the worst thing liberals could hope for, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said Wednesday night."

A veteran health reform advocate told me that he had an even gloomier view if the
threat of reconciliation isn't brandished now by strong Democratic champions of the public option.
"There is a dangerous game of chicken going on," he said. "If any of the four [Senators Mary Landrieu, Ben Nelson, Joseph Lieberman, and Blanche Lincoln] won't allow a vote to happen, it's my understanding that Reid and the White House are thinking of substituting a weaker bill with a 'trigger' or whatever."

He concludes, "It's important that reconciliation be kept on the table." Right now, though, it doesn't
even seem to be in the room.

You can read more about the fate of health care reform and the move away from considering reconciliation as a bargaining chip at Truthout.org here.