A Health Care Temptation to Avoid
It's understandable that the Obama administration and some Democrats find the idea of using a parliamentary tactic to try to push a health care reform bill through Congress nearly irresistible. Using the peculiar budget device known as "reconciliation" means they would need only a simple majority in the Senate -- rather than the filibuster proof 60 needed in most cases. And it would be perfectly fitting since the same Republicans who are screaming "foul" about the tactic now had no problem using it in 2001 and 2003 to pass the Bush tax cuts that most Democrats opposed.
But it's a bad idea that could poison ties with Republicans, including many of those willing to work with Democrats on health care and other issues, and potentially produce a bad law.
Perhaps the strongest argument against using reconciliation is the obverse of the only reason to use it -- requiring that a health reform plan have broad support. When it comes to legislation of such significance every effort should be made to build a broad consensus. And while many Republicans may be crying crocodile tears, simply using a tactic because the other guys did it is playground logic, not legislating. Beyond that, it borders on arrogance to spurn the support and ideas of Republicans who have worked on health care issues for years. Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah, for example, has drafted a bipartisan bill with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., that could be drawn on for reform legislation. For the record, Bennett says using reconciliation would "sour" relations.
If reconciliation were used as the vehicle for a health bill, it would only be authorized for the life of the budget -- 10 years. That is why many of Bush's tax cuts are expiring next year. That would be a terrible constraint on a measure that is supposed to change the shape of health care reform for decades to come.
Fortunately, Senate Democrats seem far more leery of the prospect than those in the House. The Senate Budget Committee hasn't included it in the early drafts of the budget, and several influential Democratic senators flatly object to including health reform under reconciliation.
That said, it's easy to see why Obama and the Democrats want don't want to take reconciliation off the table just yet. The threat of using it if Republicans refuse to engage on health care can be a useful bargaining chip. And keeping the option on the table also underscores the central message that Obama wants to send while Congress works on the budget -- any number of things can be modified or cut, but not health care.