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Health Reform Chronicles: Reconciliation Is “Nuclear Option” When Democrats Do It


Scare Tactics Unlimited: From “Death Panels” to “Nuclear Option”

On the eve of the health care reform summit convened today by President Obama, Republican senators, echoed by their chorus of Beck, Limbaugh, Drudge, et al., are smearing as a “nuclear option” the Senate Democrats’ potential strategy of passing health reform via budget reconciliation, a not uncommon procedure. Senators Kyl, Cornyn, and Hatch are lying, and they know it. Republicans are trying to alarm the public and intimidate the Democrats from using reconciliation because they know the Dems are going to push reform through with or without them. Reporters, news organizations should not let them get away with this mendacious blurring of two distinct phenomena.

As explained in a comment to a reader yesterday, the “nuclear option” denounced by Senators Biden and Obama in 2005 was not voting by budget reconciliation, but a Republican threat to totally obliterate the filibuster. Budget reconciliation, a perfectly rule-abiding process for passing legislation that reduces the deficit (that’s its original intent, since 1974), has been used 22 times since 1980, sixteen of which were led by Republicans, as with the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts. Reconciliation has also been used by Democrats to pass health reform legislation such as COBRA and S-CHIP. Reconciliation is explained further in this previous post, written at a less optimistic stage of the long process.

As for the “nuclear option,” that was something urged upon former Majority Leader Bill Frist in 2005 by Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council that would have abolished the 200-year-old filibuster procedure, which has been modified over the years (1917, 1933, 1975). At issue in 2005 was evangelicals’ impatience with Democrats’ refusal to allow a vote on five of Bush’s appeals court nominees whom Democrats viewed as too extreme (e.g., Janice Rogers-Brown, Charles Pickering Sr.). Votes had been allowed on 52 of Bush’s judicial nominees, of whom 42 were confirmed. The Democrats’ stonewalling on these five nominees was what the Family Research Council’s “Justice Sundays” in 2005 were about (“Stopping the Filibuster Against People of Faith”). The Democrats shown in the Breitbart.TV clip are speaking about the Republicans’ 2005 threat to totally abolish the filibuster. It was called the nuclear option because the action would have been incendiary, overkill, especially when Democrats had allowed votes on a high majority of Bush’s nominees. A crisis was averted by a bipartisan “Gang of 14” senators who reached a compromise that allowed a vote on several of Bush’s judicial nominees.

What Senate Democrats now advocate is not the abolition of the filibuster; they’re only pressing to pass health care reform, if possible, with a simple 51-vote majority. Reconciliation has been defended by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) and by assistant minority leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), who said in 2005, “Reconciliation is a process I hope we can engage in every year.” That was before his party lost control of the House and Senate. The Republicans’ claim that budget reconciliation has never been used or meant for large-scale legislation is contradicted by the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts that increased federal deficits by about $1.7 trillion between 2007 and 2008. The 2003 tax cut was approved through reconciliation by only a 51–50 vote, with then Vice President Dick Cheney supplying the 51st vote. By contrast, the Obama health reform plan (combining legislation passed by the Senate and House, and containing many ideas offered by Republican members of Congress) is projected to reduce the budget by $100 billion over the next 10 years and about $1 trillion the following decade.

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