Democrats are tying the fate of President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul to a fast-track process that will make the bill tough for Republicans to derail in the Senate. But GOP lawmakers will still be able to force votes and make arguments that could give them ammunition for November's congressional elections.
Some questions and answers about the reconciliation process, which has itself become controversial as the healthcare debate enters its end stage.
Q: Why is it called reconciliation?
A: The process was established in the 1974 law that requires Congress to pass a federal budget at the start of each year. Some years, the budget will instruct Congress to pass legislation that "reconciles" tax and spending laws with the policies laid out in that budget and triggers a process that makes it easier and quicker for lawmakers to do that.
Q: How does reconciliation make the process simpler?
A: It's a blunt instrument that makes it easier for the majority party to win. It has little impact in the House, where the majority usually has its way. But in the Senate, it prevents the minority party from using a filibuster, which lets it block legislation with just 41 of the chamber's 100 votes.
Q: What does that mean for the healthcare drive?
A: Democrats want the House to send Obama a huge, nearly $1 trillion measure that the Senate approved in December reshaping the country's healthcare system. At about the same time, both chambers would send him a second, narrower measure making changes Democrats want in the first bill, like removing federal Medicaid aid solely for Nebraska. That second measure would be the reconciliation bill.
Democrats have 59 Senate votes, and all Republicans are expected to vote "no." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., would be able to let nine nervous Democrats oppose the bill and still get the 50 votes he'd need to win, with the tie broken by Vice President Joe Biden.
Q: Is that the only advantage reconciliation provides?
A: It also limits Senate debate to 20 hours, rather than the potentially unlimited time allowed normally.
Q: What weapons do Republicans have?
A: They can claim that certain provisions violate the budget act, which if the Senate parliamentarian agrees would strip those items from the legislation. The constraints include the "Byrd rule," which requires that language in a reconciliation bill — and amendments to it — be chiefly aimed at revising spending and tax laws.
The top Republican on the Budget Committee, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said in an interview he has about a dozen points of order he can use to "punch holes" in the bill.
Should the parliamentarian uphold such a challenge, Democrats would need 60 votes to keep the language in the bill — unlikely in the highly partisan healthcare fight. Knowing this, House and Senate Democratic leaders are trying to produce a bill that won't be vulnerable to such challenges.
Q: Can Republicans try to amend the legislation?
A: Absolutely, and theoretically they can offer an unlimited number of amendments. After the 20 hours of debate have expired, they begin a so-called vote-a-rama, an exhausting marathon in which senators vote on amendments with little or no debate or interruption.
Some past reconciliation bills have seen scores of amendments handled this way. Conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said in an interview that Republicans "won't have any trouble having hundreds of amendments," though he said each would make a valid point and not be aimed at delay.
Q: Can Democrats curb this?
A: Republicans will need the physical stamina to offer an unending parade of amendments. With votes occurring every few minutes, Democrats won't make it easy for them by allowing many breaks.
Reid might ask the Senate parliamentarian to rule that the sheer number of amendments is aimed at slowing a process designed to expedite legislation. A parliamentarian has never decided that question. Should he conclude that the amendments are dilatory, Republicans could challenge the ruling but would need a majority of votes to win — virtually impossible under these circumstances.
With Democrats casting the GOP as the "party of no," Republicans might hesitate to feed that perception with obvious delaying tactics. On the other hand, stifling GOP efforts to revise the legislation could reinforce Republican accusations that Democrats are strong-arming them.
Q: What else could Republicans do?
A: The 20-hour debate limit excludes the time needed to read amendments or vote on them. Coburn wouldn't say if Republicans would craft an extremely long amendment. Once again, the parliamentarian has never ruled on whether an amendment should not be read because its sheer length makes it a delaying tactic.
Q: So it looks tough for Republicans to defeat the bill in the Senate?
A: Yes, but Republicans can score political points even as they lose votes.
They can offer amendments highlighting their own vision of health overhaul, or even completely unrelated but embarrassing amendments such as closing the military-run prison for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Even knowing their amendments would lose or be declared out of order, they could force symbolic votes that might produce fodder for campaign season TV ads.
Q: Do senators trust the chamber's parliamentarian to rule fairly?
A: Alan Frumin, the parliamentarian, has been appointed by both Democrats and Republicans when each had a Senate majority. There is always grumbling, but both Gregg and Coburn said they believe Frumin is evenhanded. "On this he has to be fair, because the whole country is going to be watching," said Coburn.
Q: Is it an abuse of reconciliation for Democrats to use it?
A: Republicans say reconciliation is for altering the budget, not making profound policy changes like revamping the healthcare system. But Republicans haven't hesitated to use it for their top priorities, like President George W. Bush's deep tax cuts of 2001.
Q: Does reconciliation mean the Democrats are on their way to finally passing their health overhaul?
A: Not nearly. Their thorniest problem remains in the House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is struggling to get the 216 votes she'll need, mainly due to lawmakers concerned that the bill's limits on federal abortion aid are too loose or that the bill is too expensive.
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