Derail of Fast Track Unlikely

Posted April 24, 2009 at 6:11pm

Despite professing a desire to cooperate with Republicans and avoid using fast-track budget rules to pass health care reform, Senate Democratic leaders appear headed in that direction and have begun laying the foundation to approve an overhaul with a simple majority vote.

Senators are locked in bipartisan negotiations on the 2010 budget resolution, talks that both sides have described as productive and even-handed. But the atmosphere is expected to change quickly with Democrats prepared to include reconciliation instructions in the final package.

Reconciliation would allow Democrats to pass major legislative priorities such as health care on a simple majority vote, avoiding the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a GOP filibuster.

Democratic leaders this week were close to an agreement with President Barack Obama to add reconciliation to the final budget resolution. Meanwhile, top Democratic Senators are looking to back Republicans into a corner — accusing them of intransigence on several issues and threatening to use the fast-track rules as punishment.

“I personally feel that there’s a good opportunity to do a bipartisan health care bill. But, if we don’t, I think we should have the option to do it with reconciliation,— Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Friday. “It won’t be a surprise.—

Senate Republicans are intimately involved in health care negotiations that are taking place simultaneously in the Finance and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committees. And they contend they share with Democrats broad goals of improving health care access, quality and affordability. Senior GOP aides argue that Democrats are threatening reconciliation simply so they have an excuse to avoid agreeing to a final health care deal that is truly bipartisan.

Recognizing that the move could pose a public relations challenge — particularly on major legislation to overhaul the entire health care industry — Senate Democrats have moved to justify it. Democratic leaders during a Thursday news conference accused the Republicans of obstructing nearly every piece of legislation brought to the floor this Congress.

Also this week, Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) released a statement likening Republican opposition to Obama’s choice for Health and Human Services secretary, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D), to obstructing the president’s health care agenda. A senior Democratic Senate aide said the purpose of the statement was designed to help make the case for using reconciliation.

“I was surprised by the fact that so few Republicans supported a moderate, qualified candidate like Gov. Sebelius. It’s an ominous signal of the level of cooperation we can expect from the Republicans on health care,— Schumer said, following a largely partisan Finance Committee vote on Sebelius’ nomination. “Maybe the Republicans are telling us they want us to pass health care reform through the budget reconciliation process.—

The Finance and HELP panels are holding a series of working-group discussions during the next five weeks to hammer out the health care package, with tentative plans to mark up a bill in June and vote on it before the Senate adjourns in August. The apparent deal reached between the Obama administration and House and Senate Democratic leaders to include reconciliation in the budget resolution could be solidified as early as Wednesday and would help to keep the ambitious schedule for passing health care reform on track.

Republicans generally appear very interested in participating in the health care reform debate and crafting a bill consistent with their principles. But they worry Democrats have no intention of negotiating in good faith and plan to abandon bipartisan talks in favor of reconciliation as soon as the GOP voices a serious objection.

Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) pushed through with strong bipartisan support an amendment to the Senate version of the budget resolution keeping reconciliation off the table for Obama’s controversial cap-and-trade energy program. Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who has indicated his opposition to including reconciliation in the budget resolution, has warned that once the fast-track rule is adopted, it could be used for anything.

Johanns, whose amendment did not address health care, argued that using reconciliation would enable the Senate to pass a major health care reform bill in as little as one day — eliminating the chamber’s deliberative role and ceding most of the power on this issue to the House.

“It just should not be used for this kind of complex legislation — and very definitely health care falls into that category,— Johanns said Friday. “Health care in some respects is more complicated than climate change.—

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (Mont.), a key Democratic negotiator on health care reform, reiterated his preference Friday that reconciliation not be used to pass an overhaul.

But Baucus wants reconciliation to be an option. Senate Democratic aides say it would force Republicans to compromise, which Democrats would prefer on an issue as complex as health care reform.

Republicans point out that including reconciliation in the budget is likely to have the opposite effect on the talks.

However, several Senate Democrats disagree with statements by their leadership that using reconciliation should only be a last resort.

These Democrats, many of whom have pushed for a major health care overhaul for decades, would prefer to use the tool to pass a bill. They believe that doing so would ease approval of legislation that would be more far-reaching and more in sync with their views.

“My preference is to do health care under reconciliation,— Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said. “I think [we] would have a much better chance of passing real reform by a majority vote of 51 instead of an extraordinary vote of 60.—