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.
"When they said they would do anything to pass health care, I don't think most Americans had Cornhusker Kickbacks and rewriting the Congressional rulebook over extreme public opposition in mind," one GOP leadership aide said. "Republicans will do anything and everything possible to ensure that this bill is put on the shelf and that we can start over and go step-by-step to address the costs of health care. We will provide no quarter. No Byrd rule opportunities will be missed, no amendments withheld, no opportunity to stop this $2.5 trillion boondoggle unexplored."
The language of both sides has been hyperbolic, and Democrats said some of their Members might take a page from controversial Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who has been accused of making outrageous claims against Democrats.
"For us, this is about the democratic process, and some of our more aggressive Members will deploy the Michele Bachmann strategy, which is asking Republicans why they hate freedom," one senior Senate Democratic aide said.
In the meantime, Republicans plan to charge that the same process they used to pass controversial tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 is akin to the GOP's 2005 push for the "nuclear option" to clear Bush administration judicial nominees on an up-or-down vote. Republicans were so incensed at Democratic filibusters of judges that year that they planned to have then-Vice President Dick Cheney declare them unconstitutional.
"This will be the same effect as if you'd changed the rules for judges. It'll be catastrophic," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation." "The minority in the Senate, if this happens, is forever changed." Graham was a member of the bipartisan "Gang of 14" that thwarted the rules change on judges.
Similarly, Graham described as "catastrophic" the effects on the chamber if Democrats follow through on a plan to shut down GOP amendments to the reconciliation bill.
Democrats are considering a potentially risky strategy of using a Senate rule against "dilatory" amendments during the reconciliation debate. The rule has rarely been used and never used during reconciliation, which otherwise cannot be filibustered.
Gregg criticized Democrats for "intending to use the chair to significantly limit the ability of the Senate to offer amendments and debate."
But Democrats said the GOP's complaints are not only hypocritical, they are unfounded.
"It makes them look out of touch and like a bunch of whiners, probably for the same reason that made us look like a bunch of whiners back in 2005," one senior Senate Democratic aide said. "It's a hard argument for them to make, especially when their hands are not clean."