Democrats Will Use Budget Reconciliation to Pass Healthcare Reform Legislation

March 11, 2010

March 11, 2010 — They've hinted about it for weeks. Now it's official.

Congressional Democrats will attempt to pass healthcare reform by using a parliamentary procedure called budget reconciliation to sidestep any filibustering by Senate Republicans.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced his party's legislative game plan in a letter today to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Despite GOP obstructionism, Sen. Reid wrote, Democrats would "finish the job" of enacting reform legislation.

"We will do so by revising individual elements of the bills both Houses of Congress passed last year, and we plan to use the regular budget reconciliation process that the Republican caucus has used many times," Sen. Reid wrote.

In budget reconciliation, lawmakers adjust spending and revenue lines in the annual federal budget. Both parties have relied on the technique to pass legislation when they controlled Congress. A Republican Congress, for example, enacted major tax cuts during the George W. Bush administration this way.

By definition, budget reconciliation legislation cannot be filibustered — that is, prevented from coming to the floor for a vote by endless speeches and procedural motions. While the House doesn't allow filibustering, the Senate does. Sixty votes are needed to override a Senate filibuster, meaning that standard legislation needs this supermajority to pass. In contrast, it takes only a simple majority to enact budget reconciliation.

What makes the procedure so valuable to Democrats now is that they no longer have the 60 votes in the Senate to override a Republican filibuster. Massachusetts gave the Republicans its 41st seat when voters there elected Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) to that chamber in January.

President Obama Wants House to Approve Senate Reform Bill by March 18

It's not crystal clear how the Democrats will use budget reconciliation to get to the healthcare-reform finish line. Right now, each chamber of Congress has passed a reform bill, and normally the 2 bills would be blended into a single piece of legislation that would come before the House and Senate for a final vote. A likely possibility, envisioned by the White House, is for the House to approve the Senate's reform legislation as-is, with the House coming back afterward with revisions that the Senate would incorporate through budget reconciliation. President Obama wants the House to approve the Senate bill before March 18, when he leaves on a trip to Australia and Indonesia.

Sen. Reid suggested that scenario in his letter today, stating that "the reconciliation bill now under consideration would not be the vehicle for comprehensive reform — that bill already passed outside of reconciliation with 60 votes." He was referring to the bill passed by the Senate in a 60-39 vote last December before Sen. Brown took office.

In an updated analysis of the Senate bill released today, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the measure would reduce the federal deficit by $118 billion from 2011 through 2019. An earlier Congressional Budget Office analysis put that figure at $132 billion.

Republican Senators Say They Will Prevent Misuse of Budget Reconciliation

The day before Sen. Reid issued his letter vowing to use budget reconciliation, Sen. McConnell announced that all 41 Senate Republicans had signed a letter decrying the use of this procedure "to pass a partisan bill that is opposed by the majority of Americans."

The Republican letter said budget reconciliation was intended for deficit reduction, not major policy changes such as an overhaul of the healthcare system, which represents one sixth of the economy. The senators stated they would enforce the Senate's so-called Byrd Rule — named after its author, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) — that prevents lawmakers from using reconciliation bills to do anything other than revise the federal budget.

The letter noted that 60 votes are needed to waive the Byrd Rule. Those are 60 votes Democrats presumably don't have.

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