WASHINGTON – U.S. President Barack Obama made a final, forceful pitch to Americans on his cherished health-care overhaul on Wednesday, taking the biggest political risk of his presidency by suggesting it could become the law of the land thanks to the controversial procedure of “reconciliation.”
In a short White House address, Obama didn’t use the R-word, but said the legislation deserves “the same kind of up or down vote” that Republicans under George W. Bush often employed when faced with Democratic opposition to their political agenda.
“I do not know how this plays politically, but I know it’s right,” Obama told a sympathetic audience of health-care workers, many of them dressed in white lab coats. “The U.S. Congress owes the American people a final vote on health-care reform.”
Obama’s proposal would extend health care to tens of millions of uninsured Americans, while cracking down on insurance companies that deny coverage due to pre-existing medical conditions.
For most other democracies, including Canada, the idea of pushing through a piece of legislation based on majority rule is a no-brainer. But in the United States, with its complex system of congressional checks and balances, reconciliation – dubbed “the nuclear option” by Republicans – is considered an arrogant act of defiance, even by a party with comfortable majorities in both chambers of Congress.
It would allow the Democrats to prevent legislation from being subjected to a Senate filibuster, itself a peculiarity of the U.S. system that allows the minority party to put the brakes on the majority party’s legislative initiatives. Some critics say the filibuster renders the United States largely ungovernable while also making it one of the most difficult countries on Earth in which to pass laws.
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, says there’s a stigma attached to reconciliation due to long-held American distrust of big government dating back to the War of Independence in the 1700s.
Democrats howled in outrage when Republicans used reconciliation to push through various pieces of Bush legislation, including bills related to tax cuts and welfare reform. Now Republicans are howling back, Jillson says, but their anger is somewhat disingenuous.
“They are muddying the waters to make the argument that the Democrats are illegitimately pulling out all the stops to pass a bill that Republicans and the American public oppose,” Jillson said.
“But in fact, they’re not talking about taking the whole health-care reform bill and pushing it through with reconciliation, just a much narrower companion bill mostly related to the tax and financial elements of the bigger bill.”
Under Obama’s tentative plan, the House of Representatives would first approve the health-care reform bill passed by the Senate on Christmas Eve. Then top Democrats would draft a companion package of alterations to be approved by both chambers in a separate reconciliation bill.
The companion bill is meant to address some of the differences between the House and Senate versions. The entire package would then be sent to Obama to sign into law; he said Wednesday he hopes that will happen within the next few weeks.
Using reconciliation, the companion bill can’t be filibustered and Senate Democrats could approve it with a simple majority vote, thwarting relentless Republican attempts to kill Obama’s health-care overhaul – something they have called his “Waterloo.”
Democrats still have a majority in the 100-seat Senate, but they are a seat short of the 60 needed to stop filibusters because of the election of a Republican to the late Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts seat earlier this year.
But the process of reconciliation, introduced in 1974, is no Democratic magic wand. The bill will then have to meet the criteria of the so-called Byrd Rule, complete with accompanying “Byrd droppings” and “Byrd baths.”
Among the many provisions in the Byrd Rule – compiled by Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia in 1985 – is one stipulating that no reconciliation bill can result in any deficits in the five years after its passage.
If the Democrats opt to “go nuclear,” a low-profile, non-partisan federal employee with the job title “Senate parliamentarian” will make the calls on whether the companion health-care bill obeys the Byrd Rule.
But it could take months as Alan Frumin will participate in private meetings with Democrats and Republicans – known as “Byrd baths” – and will likely be peppered with amendments to the bill from Republicans. If segments of the bill are chopped because they don’t meet the provisions, they’ll be known as “Byrd droppings.”
“It is a laborious process, but the narrower they make their companion bill, the better off they are,” Jillson said.
Frumin wouldn’t have the final say in whether the reconciliation bill meets the Byrd Rule criteria. Instead, that will fall to Vice-President Joe Biden, Byrd himself and another designated Democratic senator upon hearing Frumin’s advice.
A ruling by the Senate parliamentarian has been overturned only once, in 1996. But Frumin’s predecessor, Bob Dove, was fired in 2001 after the senate majority leader at the time, Republican Trent Lott, grew to resent his rulings, including one that deemed only one tax bill could be considered that year using reconciliation.
“The role of the parliamentarian in a contentious reconciliation situation is incredible,” Dove said in an interview last year. “It is not something that any parliamentarian ever wishes upon themselves, but it goes with the job.”