As Senate Democrats move closer to using reconciliation to pass health care reform this year, key GOP Senators are signaling plans to avenge the move by employing parliamentary tactics to trip up even the most noncontroversial of agenda items.
Although Senate Democrats are far from reaching a consensus on the reconciliation issue, party leaders confirmed Wednesday that they are reserving the right to use it to pass health care reform if Republicans fail to negotiate in good faith. Senate Republicans saying they have every intention of being a full partner in the upcoming health care negotiations said holding reconciliation in reserve could poison the discussions, and threatened retribution.
If they go down that road, I think the fur is going to fly, Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairman John Thune (S.D.) said. I suspect that there is going to be an awful lot of resistance, and we will exercise our prerogatives so that the rules of the Senate are respected.
Some top GOP Senators declined to speculate on how their Conference would respond if Democrats use reconciliation to pass health care reform. Senior Republican Senate aides say it is too early to discuss retaliation for something that might not occur; they prefer to focus instead on trying to shape a bill that they can embrace.
But other key Republican Senators were candid that reconciliation, while difficult for them to stop, would prompt them to try to trip up Democratic priorities large and small.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who was a member of the 2005 bipartisan Gang of 14 that negotiated a deal on President George W. Bushs stalled judicial nominees, said he would be willing to tap into the Senates parliamentary arsenal to block the majority from pursuing its agenda.
Similarly, National Republican Senatorial Committee John Cornyn (Texas) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) predicted that the GOP Conference would respond to Democrats use of reconciliation on health care with tough action.
Hatch, a key negotiator on health care reform, early in his Senate career successfully filibustered a union-backed labor bill even though Democrats controlled the chamber. He acknowledged he wouldnt be able to stop the Democrats from using reconciliation to pass heath care this year, but strongly cautioned Democrats against using it. Reconciliation, if included in a final budget resolution, would allow Democrats to advance health care or other major policy proposals on a simple majority vote, rather than the 60 required under regular order.
There would be a lot of things done in retaliation, Hatch said. I know what to do; Ive been there.
Previous Senates, whether controlled by Democrats or Republicans, have used reconciliation, usually to raise or lower federal income tax rates. This current crop of GOP Senators contends the tool was not intended to advance major programmatic changes such as an overhaul of the health care industry.
While many Democrats want to use reconciliation to advance what they say is an essential legislative priority, still others, including Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (N.D.), are opposed to using it.
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) both said Wednesday that they would prefer not to have to use reconciliation to reach a deal on health care, but were adamant about retaining the tool as leverage. Baucus acknowledged that the procedural maneuver could lead to partisan warfare in the Senate down the line.
Obviously, reconciliation tends to be partisan, said Baucus, who along with Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), has been charged with writing the Senate health care bill. The more nonpartisan our approach to health care reform, the better its going to be.
Sen. Reid hopes that Republicans will work with us to develop a health care reform bill that wins bipartisan support, added Jim Manley, the Majority Leaders spokesman. His preference would be to use the normal legislative process.
Republicans decision to exact revenge over the Democratic use of reconciliation may well depend on the popularity of the final health care bill, GOP sources said. Republicans say they would likely ratchet up their counteroffensive gradually.
According to a former Senate Republican leadership aide, the GOP might first go after White House nominations. Republicans could require each appointee to get a separate hearing and a separate roll call vote. They could stop attending committee hearings, and decline to provide unanimous consent to move forward on even the most benign issues or routine Senate business. Republicans could also demand that the text of bills, which are often hundreds of pages long, be read aloud.
These tactics could grind the Senate to a virtual halt, Republicans say.
The former Senate GOP leadership aide said such moves are usually made at the direction of the leadership, but explained that individual Senators might act on their own if they are angry enough. The source added that leadership might direct various Members to engage in some of these activities and serve as weather balloons to gauge the publics reaction. If there is no backlash, such actions could escalate, the former aide said.
Cornyn described the Democrats possible use of reconciliation to push through health care legislation as probably the most aggressive move that Democrats could possibly make. And, yes, in the Senate there are all sorts of ways to exact a price for abuse of your majority status.