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Senators Spar Over Process

Senate Democrats and Republicans are poised to have a knock-down, drag-out fight over the arcane budget reconciliation process and equally esoteric rules as Congress races to pass a health care bill before Easter.

Policy disagreements have become almost an afterthought as Republicans charge Democrats with twisting Senate rules to pass what they say is an unpopular bill while Democrats say the GOP’s “obstructionism” and hypocrisy have reached new heights.

“The whole process is destroying the way the Senate is supposed to function,” Budget ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said Monday. Gregg has been spearheading the GOP’s planning on how to trip up the Senate bill by using obscure “Byrd rule” budget points of order and crafting politically treacherous amendments.

Gregg and his fellow Republicans have even begun attempting to instill fear and mistrust among House Democrats by indicating that the Senate minority’s ability to trip up the reconciliation measure could prevent the chamber from passing the crucial piece of the House-Senate health care deal.

Meanwhile, Democrats have been seriously considering trying to break a de facto GOP filibuster by calling in Vice President Joseph Biden, who serves as President of the Senate, to rule scores of GOP amendments out of order if it becomes clear they are being offered to delay the process.

All of that belies Obama’s advice during the White House health care summit two weeks ago when he said: “We can have a debate about process or we can have a debate about how we’re actually going to help the American people at this point. And I think that’s — the latter debate’s the one that they care about a little bit more.”

But the complicated process that Democrats will have to use to get their health care bill passed seems to have put both sides in a tizzy. Though the comprehensive bill can and would become law if the House simply approves the Senate-passed bill unchanged, House Democrats have refused to take that step without a separate package of changes to be passed under budget reconciliation. The reconciliation route was chosen after the January special election win of Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), which robbed Senate Democrats of the filibuster-proof majority they used to pass their original bill in December. Reconciliation bills, which are designed to address budgetary discrepancies, are limited to 20 hours of debate and require only a simple majority for passage.

Republicans clearly believe they have a winning strategy in playing off the complexities of the process; they have been linking the Democrats’ current strategy to the public’s distaste for the legislative deals that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made to secure a filibuster-proof vote for his chamber’s measure on Christmas Eve.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) endured scathing criticism for the “Cornhusker Kickback” he negotiated for his state’s Medicaid payments before he agreed to vote for the bill last year. He has since called for all states to receive the same deal, and increasing state Medicaid payments was a central piece of Obama’s plan.

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