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Reconciliation, Explained

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In a private briefing on Capitol Hill Bill Heniff from the Congresssional Research Service and Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, offered some insight into Reconciliation, the process which will most likely be used to pass health care reform.

Reconciliation is relatively new. It was first used in 1974 and is a legislative process in the Senate intended to allow consideration of a contentious budget bill without the threat of a filibuster. It is used specifically to change existing law, explained Heniff. It is referred to as an expedited procedure and must be reported by the Budget Committee, which is prohibited from making any changes to what has been submitted. That is left to the Rules Committee. Reconciliation goes to the heart of how the Senate operates. Under normal rules, Senators can debate as long as they like and offer amendments. Reconciliation strips senators of those rights.

Unlike cloture, a procedure which allows the Senate to cut off debate with 60 votes and get to a final vote on a bill, ("After 30 hours they can vote. That's how they did the Christmas Eve vote on health care reform. They were able to calculate when they could vote," said Heniff) reconciliation does not guarantee a final vote. Senators can offer an unlimited number of amendments, allowing a determined opposition to indefinitely delay a reconciliation measure. And although those amendments cannot be debated, merely voted on, the only way to end the adding of amendments is "through exhaustion."

In the reconciliation process there is also the matter of the Byrd Rule which stipulates that reconciliation cannot include "extraneous matters." A matter is considered extraneous if it does not have any impact on the budget or reduce the deficit by $1 billion. A provision would also fit the definition of "extraneous" if it increases the deficit in any fiscal year in the future, whether in one, five, ten or 20 years. And there are "no bright lines," said a Heniff. "It is very challenging to determine whether a proposal is extraneous." However, The Byrd Rule can be waved by 60 votes and has been waved on reconciliation measures before.

Green discussed recent polling which found the public is "fine with the Senate using reconciliation to pass health care reform," as long as they "like the bill." Green's organization polled nine key Senate states and found a majority of those poled, including 56% in Nevada, 65% in Washington Sate, 62% in Iowa, 62% in Minnesota, 57% in North Dakota, 61% in Virginia, 58% in Colorado, 57% in Missouri all like a bill that contains a public option and House districts favored public option by 64%-73%.

It is unlikely, however, that a public option will be included in any final bill that is passed simply because the White House has not offered strong support for the measure.