Is anyone else feeling a bit of déjà vu?
This stage in the health care legislative battle feels, to me at least, a lot like the period just before Christmas. Remember the constant threats from Republicans that they would use all the parliamentary tools available to indefinitely stall a final vote on the Senate health care bill? Remember Republican Sen. Judd Gregg’s memo on using the rules of the Senate to slow things down to a pace that could prove fatal? Remember the various tools in the “parliamentary arsenal” Republicans would employ? Remember Republican Sen. Tom Coburn forcing the Senate clerk to read all 767 pages of a single payer amendment?
And what happened? The Senate bill passed. All Republican obstructionist grandstanding on the Senate floor ended quickly and was soon forgotten. (The Senate clerk’s reading of the single payer amendment, for instance, was halted when its sponsor simply withdrew it from consideration.)
It seems that the Republicans are using the same strategy again – trying to convince the media and wavering Congressional Democrats that a reconciliation package might never pass. The reason this tactic would make sense now is this: If enough House Democrats start believing a reconciliation bill will never get through, they might not vote for the underlying Senate bill first, a crucial next step for reform.
Sen. Gregg is a central player in this narrative once again. Yesterday, he suggested Democratic leaders might renege on their promise to “fix” the Senate bill with reconciliation. On CNBC, Gregg offered this rather cryptic tidbit: “Once they pass the great big bill, I wouldn’t be surprised if the White House didn’t care if reconciliation passed. I mean, why would they?” (It’s worth answering his question. The White House would want reconciliation passed, if for no other reason, than to strip out the unsavory Cornhusker Kickback that neither it, nor any Democrats, wants to have to defend in subsequent elections. Plus, getting a reconciliation package through the Senate requires only 50 votes plus Joe Biden and a simple majority in the House – not exactly a heavy lift in terms of gathering votes.)
Then today, Republicans leaked to Greg Sargent that “They are going to use the arcane “Byrd rule” to try to bleed the reconciliation fix to death and ensure that it never passes.” Bleed the reconciliation fix to death! Wow – are you scared, wavering House Democrats currently being courted by Speaker Nancy Pelosi?
Maybe they should be. Even Senate scholars and parliamentarians haven’t said for sure how a reconciliation battle would play out in the Senate. It’s likely to get rather ugly and to take longer than Democrats would like. But, even ignoring that reconciliation packages have passed many times before despite entrenched opposition, let’s step back from process and Senate rules for a second, shall we? The reconciliation package Democrats are crafting would do things like strip out the Cornhusker kickback, close the Medicare Part D doughnut hole, scale back the tax on Cadillac health plans and possibly incorporate some more GOP ideas into the legislation. These things are not nearly as contentious as the massive underlying Senate bill and opposition to them might lack the oomph that last year’s opposition had. Bottom line: If the House passes the Senate bill and President Obama signs it into law, the battle is won. A reconciliation package would be neither as contentious nor as politically interesting as the comprehensive legislation itself. There will be enormous momentum in favor of the reconciliation package if the underlying Senate bill becomes law – imagine a signing ceremony, A1 headlines about Obama’s historic victory, etc.
But yet Republicans are eagerly leaking details of their plan to put up a reconciliation roadblock. These leaks are not, in my opinion, happening because reporters are digging deep. (No offense to Sargent, who’s done an incredible job working the phones and the Capitol to break constant news about the health care debate. He puts many of us to shame.) But it seems like these leaks are more likely a targeted Republicans effort to try and scare off enough House Democrats that the Senate bill itself can’t get through. Accomplish that and the GOP doesn’t have to worry about reconciliation.
Of course, Pelosi might have other far more serious problems than House Democrats scared about reconciliation.