08/20/2014 07:46 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

McConnell's Reconciliation

Win McNamee via Getty Images

Just to be clear, that title shouldn't be read in a normal fashion. This is not the story of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell having a "Kumbaya" moment with President Obama. It's not even the story of McConnell reconciling with the Tea Party wing of his own party. Instead, I'm using the word "reconciliation" in a very specific rules-of-the-Senate fashion. Because McConnell just revealed to Politico how he intends to govern, should his party take control of the Senate in November -- and it appears that the previously-arcane "budget reconciliation" maneuver will figure heavily in his playbook.

Many are focusing on another aspect of what McConnell is promising to do, which is understandable because shutting down the government has a lot bigger impact on the country than details of how the Senate conducts its business. But, in this case, I'm choosing instead to ignore the forest (as it were) to concentrate on one particular tree.

The Politico article is an extensive one, which looks at McConnell's current campaign and his relationship to members of his own party, including fellow Kentuckian Rand Paul. It draws a pretty plain picture of what McConnell would do if given control of the Senate, though:

In an extensive interview here, the typically reserved McConnell laid out his clearest thinking yet of how he would lead the Senate if Republicans gain control of the chamber. The emerging strategy: Attach riders to spending bills that would limit Obama policies on everything from the environment to health care, consider using an arcane budget tactic to circumvent Democratic filibusters and force the president to "move to the center" if he wants to get any new legislation through Congress.

In short, it's a recipe for a confrontational end to the Obama presidency.

"We're going to pass spending bills, and they're going to have a lot of restrictions on the activities of the bureaucracy," McConnell said in an interview aboard his campaign bus traveling through Western Kentucky coal country. "That's something he won't like, but that will be done. I guarantee it."

There's a reason why McConnell is specific about doing this to "spending bills," and the reason is budget reconciliation. Democrats and Republicans alike were made aware of this tactic a few years back, when the Affordable Care Act passed without having to get 60 votes -- because budget bills only need a majority vote and cannot be blocked by a filibuster.

Much later on in the Politico article, an interesting revelation is made:

In a private meeting before the summer recess, Republicans discussed using the procedural tool known as budget "reconciliation" to make it easier to pass legislation by avoiding filibusters. Some on the right say that could be the way to go.

"That's how we got Obamacare; we'll see if we can undo any of it that way," [Senator Rand] Paul said in an interview. "It makes more sense to try to do it with 60, but I think you do what you have to do."

But McConnell was coy on whether he'd pursue this tactic. And even if he tried to gut Obamacare, he knows full well he'd lack the support to override a presidential veto.

"We'll see," McConnell said when asked about reconciliation.

In this case, "We'll see" can be read as: "You can bet your bottom dollar on it, Jack!" McConnell may want to play it coy now, but it's pretty obvious that if the party caucus is already holding meetings on the tactic that it will indeed be used. My guess is that it will be used often.

In fact, this might be less drastic than what I originally thought when pondering the concept of Mitch McConnell running the Senate. Last month, I wrote an article that ended with the thought that McConnell might just -- in retaliation for Harry Reid "going nuclear" by getting rid of filibusters on presidential appointments -- abolish the legislative filibuster altogether. There would, I pointed out, be nothing to stop him from doing so, except perhaps the fear of how Democrats would rule the Senate when they regained control at some future point.

McConnell is signaling that he won't go this far, though. He won't abolish the legislative filibuster, because he sees a way forward where he won't have to. What he'll be doing instead is to attach every item on the Republican agenda (abortion, gay marriage, Obamacare, whatever...) to a budget bill. This way, he can allow Republicans to pass whatever they'd like, and do an end-run around the ability of Democrats to block any of it.

The filibuster used to be rare, remember. It wasn't until Harry Reid took over that its use exploded, where nowadays many journalists (who really should know better) routinely say things like "the bill didn't get the required 60 votes" without even mentioning the filibuster's use. The use of budget reconciliation to pass contentious issues has also been historically rare. It has been used by both parties at various times, but was never previously a first choice -- it was more a tactic of last resort. But Republicans still nurse a rather large grudge over its use to pass Obamacare. If they take over the Senate, McConnell may decide that pretty much any bill worth passing should be included as a rider to a budget bill. He may make it his go-to tactic, to put it another way. Not only will this force Obama to veto bills (and may result in more government shutdowns), it will do so by denying Senate Democrats the use of the filibuster tactic that Republicans have now made so common.

This is not a comforting thought for Democrats, obviously. They don't have the luxury of assuming: "If Republicans take the Senate, we'll just filibuster everything, the way Republicans have been doing for years." Mitch McConnell may not allow that to happen. McConnell's Senate may in fact pass nothing but budget bills, as a direct result. Why bother spending time over an issue if Democrats can filibuster it? Why not, instead, just use budget reconciliation rules for every bill? This won't be in any way limited to tax issues, or government spending (in other words, what budget bills are supposed to be about). Instead, all the thorny social issues on the GOP agenda will be magically transformed into budget issues.

So while others are pointing out the bigger picture -- the fact that McConnell may instigate government shutdown after government shutdown for the next two years -- what struck me about the Politico story was how we'd all better get used to hearing the word "reconciliation" if Republicans do take the Senate. Because my guess is that we're all going to be hearing it a lot.


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