While the White House has been floating the idea of using reconciliation to pass health care legislation with a simple majority of 51 votes, it should be seen as an empty threat. Let’s even set aside the fact that it would be a declaration of war that would shut down the Senate, that it would remove any pretense that Obama is a post-partisan president, and that ramming an unpopular bill down the throats of the public is not a politically astute move. Even if Democrats wanted to risk all of that for the greater goal of passing health care legislation, they couldn’t do it.
The budget reconciliation procedure has to be used for tax and spending matters, meaning that if the White House wanted to pass a bill in this matter, they’d have to drop provisions that are central to Democratic proposals. So, for instance, Democrats wouldn’t be able to create health insurance exchanges, to force insurers to cover those with pre-existing conditions, create a new government-run plan, pass the health, wellness and prevention provisions, and so forth. Nobody remotely serious thinks that you’d be able to pass comprehensive legislation in this manner. Democratic Sen. Kent Contrad has said, “The Senate parliamentarian said to us that if you try to write substantive health reform in reconciliation, you’ll end up with Swiss cheese.” Even liberal bloggers Kevin Drum and Ezra Klein have poured cold water on the idea. While Klein says that Democrats may still be able to move the ball down the field with reconciliation by passing some watered down legislation, I don’t think that makes any sense. For one, I don’t see how it would be worth Democrats risking all of the political blowback they’d suffer by using reconciliation just to end up with a swiss cheese bill. And beyond that, if Democrats are going to pass a bill without a government plan anyway, then liberals may as well drop their objections and vote for a compromise measure that they can pass the clean way.
So, with that said, I wouldn’t get too excited by this talk of reconciliation. It’s just an act of chest-pounding from a desperate White House that is watching its top legislative goal get ripped apart by infighting within its own party. I call bluff.