With President Barack Obama set to green-light the use of reconciliation to pass health care legislation, Senate Republicans are preparing to wage a unified floor and message war to block this 51-vote strategy — and lay the groundwork for what they hope will be big electoral gains in November.
Senate Republicans have already set the messaging component in motion, saying reconciliation would subvert the will of the American people. Still under development is the legislative strategy, which Republicans hope will tie the majority party in knots and force vulnerable Democrats to take politically damaging votes — if it doesn't derail reconciliation altogether.
"We'll do everything we can to try to defeat it," Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said Monday.
Reconciliation is a special procedure designed for budget-related bills that among other things prohibits filibusters, allowing legislation to clear the Senate with only 51 votes instead of facing the usual 60-vote threshold.
Senate Republicans have maintained a filibuster of any final Democratic health care reform bill since late January, when they gained a 41st seat with the election of Sen. Scott Brown in the Massachusetts special election to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D).
To maintain this blockade in the face of a Democratic reconciliation bill, the Republican floor strategy would hinge on proposing endless amendments and raising as many budget points of order as possible. Republicans believe these tactics could tie up the Senate floor for several weeks and force Democrats to take multiple votes that would be difficult to defend in the midterm elections.
Under reconciliation — and unlike with a normal bill — Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) cannot prevent Members from proposing as many amendments as they want, as long as the proposals are germane. Additionally, any reconciliation vehicle might have to go through either the Finance Committee, the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee or the Budget Committee — or two out of the three. That would further extend the process at a time when Democrats want to focus on jobs and the economy.
Republican operatives say GOP Senators on any of those committees would replicate the minority's floor strategy during deliberations required to report out a reconciliation bill.
If the Democrats still manage to clear a bill after all of that, Alexander vowed that the campaign to repeal health care reform would begin the next day, adding that little would get done in the Senate for the rest of the year as a consequence. Given that public polls since December have shown a majority of likely voters are opposed to the Democrats' health care bill, Republicans feel confident in their strategy.
"It will take several weeks to pass, it will be a legislative mess, it will dominate the agenda at a time when jobs, debt and terror ought to be the agenda," Alexander said. "And, if it should pass, the rest of the year will be a campaign to repeal it. It will define every Democratic candidate for Congress."
"We'll fight this thing until the bitter end," a senior Republican Senate aide added. "And if they ultimately pass it out of the Senate, the House Democrats will be left with a process so ugly they'll wish they could vote for the Cornhusker Kickback and call it reform."
The president is scheduled to announce on Wednesday his next moves for health care reform, and reconciliation is expected to be a part of the mix. However, Congressional Democrats — perhaps preparing a messaging war of their own — are now shying away from the term reconciliation, instead referring it as a "majority vote" strategy.
Like the White House, Senate Democrats appear to be warming to the 51-vote strategy as well. Reconciliation has been used nearly two dozen times since it was created in the early 1970s. In most instances, it was used when there was divided government. The past few times the procedure was used, Republicans ran both the White House and one chamber of Congress.
"I think my boss said it best," Reid spokesman Rodell Mollineau said. "Republicans need to stop crying about using a procedure that they have embraced many times before. For them to suggest otherwise would be duplicitous."
Knowledgeable Senate Democratic aides have warned for weeks of the difficulty of drafting a complex health care reform bill under reconciliation rules. The challenge is to construct legislation that can satisfy Democrats, withstand Republican resistance and pass muster with the Senate Parliamentarian.
Meanwhile, Republicans are relying on these challenges to cause the Democrats fits.
One of the reconciliation procedure's rules, which is named for Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), requires legislation that moves under the procedure to have a budgetary impact. The GOP plans to raise a point of order on aspects of the bill that it believes violate the Byrd rule — regardless of the policy.
The most likely reconciliation strategy for Congressional Democrats is to have the House pass the $871 billion health care reform bill approved by the Senate on Christmas Eve and then pass a companion bill with the changes desired by House Democrats. Republicans are convinced that this is a political winner for them, even if they fail to block the majority from getting a bill to Obama's desk.
"This is win-win for Republicans. Even if the bill passes, Republicans will have weeks to stoke up public outrage," a GOP lobbyist said.