Reconciliation May Return in 2008

Democrats Eye Using Budget Rules to Move Bills

Posted December 18, 2007 at 6:47pm

House and Senate Democrats are considering using next year’s budget as a weapon to bypass Senate Republican filibusters and ensure politically popular legislation reaches the president’s desk.

Sick of what they see as unprecedented obstructionism, Democrats could move a budget reconciliation package that would allow legislation on a broad array of programs and tax policy to pass with a simple majority under strict time limits.

While House Democrats have initiated the idea, Senate Democrats also are beginning to vet the concept — feeling equally frustrated by their party’s inability to pass legislation against a willful 49-seat GOP Senate minority and a veto-happy Republican White House.

“We’re looking at all the options to prevent Senate Republicans from blocking change,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“They are holding up a lot of progress for the American people, and people don’t know it,” Van Hollen said. “We’re looking at ways to get up-and-down votes and get things to the president. We think presidents should have to make these tough decisions in the light of day instead of hiding behind Senate Republicans.”

Such a package would either provide Democrats with a major accomplishment heading into 2008, or more likely be vetoed and arm Democrats with an election-year issue that would appeal to their liberal base and lawmakers alike who are unhappy with the majority’s inability to get more done in 2007.

Republicans used so-called budget reconciliation rules to adopt massive tax cut packages and a nearly $40 billion budget-cutting package with simple majority votes when they were in charge.

Asked about the likelihood of a reconciliation package next year, Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said: “There’s a growing prospect of that. With this administration behaving the way they are, they are forcing Congress in that direction and shame on them for that.”

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) agreed, characterizing the possibility as “higher than at the beginning of this year.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) also acknowledged there could be a greater push for reconciliation. “I’m sure there will be a focus on that, yes,” he said.

Senior Congressional sources explained that House Democratic leaders are hoping the mere prospect of a reconciliation measure could help assuage disappointment within their rank and file that this year’s $515 billion, omnibus spending measure falls short on many of the party’s top priorities. The move could assure Democratic lawmakers that their priorities could still be dealt with six months from now — a more politically fortuitous time for a party hoping to expand its majority.

One senior Democratic Senate aide said: “There are serious people who want to have serious discussions about it.” A growing share of Senate Democrats “are getting sick of [Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell [R-Ky.] in the Senate and would like to move a message on what we want to do,” the source said.

Clearly, that frustration has mounted across the Dome, making the prospect of reconciliation increasingly appealing.

Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) said Congressional Democrats need to pass legislation, one way or another.

Davis said using reconciliation rules “holds some appeal to those of us that are tired of having the Senate say they can’t get anything done because they don’t have 60 votes. That’s not what the Constitution says.”

And while Democratic Senators tend to lay blame at the feet of the president, they share the same goal that somehow, the majority has to break through the gridlock that is bedeviling the Congress these days.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of both the Finance and Budget committees, said that while he would want to discuss the idea with his panel chairmen before giving it his endorsement, Democrats must look at all avenues to “force action” against an increasingly stubborn White House. The public expects Congress to pass legislation, and the environment hasn’t lent itself to that result, Wyden said.

“If the White House is going to frustrate bipartisan efforts to address urgent needs, then we’ve got to look at all opportunities to force action,” Wyden said.

The only hitch could be with incumbent Democrats who may not want to arm Republicans with additional ammunition in an election year. Republicans said Tuesday that they would undoubtedly try to use any reconciliation package to paint the Democrats as tax-and-spend liberals who cannot manage the federal books.

Given the Democrats’ slim majority in the Senate, a single defection would sink efforts to pass a reconciliation package. That limits how bold Democrats could be, although they could still pursue a smaller package of politically popular items. The budget rules require that such packages cut the deficit overall, but each package can include a variety of spending increases alongside spending cuts, tax hikes and tax cuts.

All of those pitfalls still need to be weighed, a reality of which Democratic leaders are all too aware. Asked his thoughts on using the tool, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declined to comment. “We’ll worry about that next year,” he said.

This year, Democrats had a single budget reconciliation instruction, which protected a major student loan package from Senate filibusters. Democrats cite that bill, which was signed by Bush, as one of their major accomplishments, and it had among the easiest trips through the Capitol of any bill not naming a post office this year.

Eric Ueland, former chief of staff for then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), warned that there are limitations to using reconciliation that would stymie efforts to bypass Republicans wholesale. He specifically cited the Byrd Rule, which prohibits reconciliation from including provisions and policies that don’t have a direct deficit impact. “Read it and weep people,” Ueland said. “The Byrd Rule presents a substantial impediment to the dreams of running roughshod over Senate Republicans.”

Other Republicans said they expect Democrats to try the maneuver but are confident that they can win the public relations battle.

“It’s to be expected, and it gives us more and more things to play on,” said one White House official.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), ranking member on the Budget Committee, said he’s “not surprised” at the latest Democratic strategy.

“The Democratic agenda is to spend a heck of a lot of money that we don’t have on a whole lot of programs we can’t afford,” Gregg said.

House Budget Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.) said he’s open to the idea, although he said it hasn’t advanced very far yet.

“We did succeed with student loans this year. I am more than willing to explore other opportunities for reconciliation.”

Spratt said that he had hoped for a broader bipartisan deficit-slicing package dealing with such issues as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, but sees little hope for that now. Spratt suggested the House could try to pass a package of reconciliation protections and see what happens.

“We may put it in our budget in the House but they may not be able to do it in the Senate,” he said.

Conservative Republicans, meanwhile, fear Democrats will engage in a bastardization of the reconciliation rules, which were originally adopted to make deficit reduction easier.

“If they are using the student loan bill as an example, then they are turning the whole purpose of reconciliation on its head,” said Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), ranking member on the Budget Committee.

Reconciliation was “designed to slow the deficit and control spending,” Ryan said, while the student loan bill was “used to grow government.” The bill shrank subsidies to private student loan lenders, slashed loan interest rates and boosted spending on student aid. The package overall was scored as only slightly reducing the deficit.

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) predicted such a move would backfire: “If Democrats intend to use a legislative process designed to save taxpayers money to raise taxes and advance spending priorities that they couldn’t get done otherwise, that would be another nail in the majority’s coffin.”