03/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Democrats Should Just Say No To Budget Filibusters

After we get through this season of passing necessary emergency legislation (in order to yank the American economy back from the cliff Bush led us to), Congress is going to have to turn its attention to the federal budget. They didn't pass one last year, and this year's budget is right around the corner as well. But a little-known rule in the Senate may dramatically change the balance of power between the parties during this process. It's called "reconciliation," and it's a magic bullet to slay Republican opposition to passing a budget with President Obama's priorities and agenda intact.

Because (are you sitting down?) budgetary bills that go through the reconciliation process cannot be filibustered in the Senate.

Which means both Obama and the Democrats in Congress may be able to totally ignore the congressional Republicans of both houses -- since these Republicans will be utterly powerless and utterly irrelevant to the discussion. The ramifications are enormous.

The process itself is part of the arcane set of rules the Senate runs by. From Wikipedia, here's a quick overview:

To trigger the reconciliation process, Congress passes a concurrent resolution on the budget instructing one or more committees to report changes in law affecting the budget by a certain date. If the budget instructs more than one committee, then those committees send their recommendations to the Budget Committee of their House, and the Budget Committee packages the recommendations into a single omnibus bill. In the Senate, the reconciliation bill then gets only 20 hours of debate, and amendments are limited. Because reconciliation limits debate and amendment, the process empowers the majority party.

Until 1996, reconciliation was limited to deficit reduction, but in 1996 the Senate adopted a precedent to apply reconciliation to any legislation affecting the budget, even legislation that would worsen the deficit. Under the administration of President George W. Bush, Congress has used reconciliation to enact three major tax cuts. Senate Republicans have repeatedly, though unsuccessfully, tried to use reconciliation to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

It's a bit tricky, and there are a lot of i's to be dotted and t's to be crossed to qualify (including something known as the Byrd Rule), but this looks like a good way to get a budget passed without having to worry about getting 60 votes for it in the Senate.

Republicans, of course, would howl. But by the time we get to passing budgets, the American people may be tired of their obstructionism, and support Congress getting something done without having to convince a few Republicans that it's a good idea. Barack Obama can be seen as "reaching out in a spirit of bipartisanship" and all of that, but if the Republicans knew in advance that their votes -- even in the Senate -- were not necessary, then it would all be an exercise in public relations, with no downside for Obama (for making the effort). Because it would mean that any budget which passes muster with the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats can make it to the president's desk -- without a single Republican vote.

One possible flaw in this scenario, however, is that it requires Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to show some backbone. This may be beyond his abilities, from what we've seen so far. Reid would have to play some serious hardball by denying Republicans the chance to filibuster, and while I remain ever-hopeful that Reid will eventually stand up for his party, it is a weak link in the scheme, I have to admit.

The first part of this process will be dealing with last year's budget. Now, congressional Democrats can be somewhat excused for not delivering a budget on time last summer (the federal fiscal year starts the first of October), since they knew if they passed what they wanted, Bush would have just vetoed it. But now they have no excuse. And the first thing they need to do after all the bailout bills and stimulus packages and mortgage crisis bills are done is to lump all of last year's budget into an "omnibus appropriations" bill.

Next, they need to talk to the "parliamentarian" (the expert on congressional rules) and figure out the correct steps for reconciliation. Because, as I read it, if they follow these steps faithfully, then a bill will emerge which will only need 51 votes in the Senate. Teddy Kennedy won't even need to show up. Al Franken won't even need to be seated. They could even chuck Burris out and it wouldn't matter. Even if a handful of Democrats in the Senate voted against it, it could still pass.

And the Republicans, in the House and the Senate, won't be able to do a thing about it. Except whine -- which they're already getting pretty good at doing.


[Note: I am no parliamentarian myself, so if I'm making assumptions I shouldn't, I invite corrections in the comments and apologize for any errors of interpretation in advance. Sorry for being so deferential, but this just seems too good to be true....]


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