I know I wasn’t planning on writing much about US politics, but I can’t really resist after the past couple of days. Also, I got called out by Jim as a slacker. I’d challenge him to a duel, but I’m not too good of a shot these days. So I’ll write something.
As well all know, for 2009 the Democrats had a huge majority in the House and a supermajority in the Senate. Towards the end of last year, Ted Kennedy died, which meant that a temporary senator was appointed for Massachusetts, with a special election scheduled for Tuesday gone. As Massachusetts is a very liberal state, it was widely expected that the Democratic candidate, Attorney General Martha Coakley, would win. And then, in a massive upset but moderate surprise, Republican Scott Brown won the sea, thus ensuring that the Democrats lost their 60th seat, and supermajority, in the Senate.
And while the Democrats have a huge 18 seat majority still, they won’t get anything of substance through both chambers (they will still have their majority in the House until the midterms – after which it is up in the air at the moment) through regular proceedings. Then again, even with their supermajority they have very little to show for it. The supermajority, during the health care reform debate, only empowered a self-serving Democrat, Ben Nelson (D-NE), and a vindictive Independent, Joe Liebermann (I-CT), as well gave free reign for a Democrat committee chairman, Max Baucus (D-MT), to stuff around trying to get a single Republican, Olympia Snowe (R-ME) (who won’t even vote for the bill), all the while Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) got an excuse as to why stuff all was happening (he had to wrangle 60 votes, and no less).
As an aside, I would put the blame for no health care reform on Max Baucus (for dragging the whole thing on for longer than it needed), first, and then Harry Reid (for not being as hard as he needed to be) second. If you’ve kept up with the debate, you’ll know why. Maybe I’ll get to writing about it.
The Democrats weren’t prepared to play hardball, and they didn’t seem to have the leadership to apply pressure in the right spots. And now they have to, because they won’t get anything through. There are enough cantankerous and decrepit Republicans in the Senate (I’m looking at you Jim DeMint (R-SC), John Cornyn (R-TX), Mitch McConnell (R-KY)) that are prepared to start up a filibuster anything and everything that will give the Democrats even a slight boost for the November midterms. This means they can try (and likely fail) to get one/a couple of Republican votes to break a filibuster and then vote on any proposed bills or they can go something called the ‘Reconciliation Process’. The reconciliation process requires Harry Reid and the Democratic leadership in the Senate to man-up a little though.
There are two alternative methods – attaching the bill to the budget when it comes around (unlikely) or the ‘nuclear option’. The ‘nuclear option’ deserves a post on its own, but suffice to say it has a very slim chance of being used. Mainly because, and it keeps coming back to him, Harry Reid isn’t hard enough to employ it.
So the reconciliation process reads like this: In 1974, to avoid (cue the irony) filibusters, Robert Byrd (D-WV) introduced a measure for budget items to pass through with an up-and-down vote (51 to pass/ 50 and the VP to pass) and restricted to 20 hours of debate and no amendments can be attached to it. This was to reduce the deficit. The bills being passed this way had to be inspected by an ‘independent’ figure – in this case the Parliamentarian of the US Senate. He, Alan Frumin, acts as the official advisor to the Senate for standing rules and procedures. All in all, it is to speed up the process and stop important budgetary bills from getting bogged down in lengthy debates/delay tactics/filibusters.
Therefore, to go through this process, every line of the bill, really, has to have something to do with spending the government’s money or taxing citizens. So the process hinges on, first, Alan Frumin agreeing that the bill (in this case the health care bill in whatever form it ends up taking) or specific lines of the bill is a budgetary concern. Opponents of specific lines in the bill (see: Republicans) can (see: will) raise a ‘budget point of order’for the parliamentarian to rule on. A point of order could be raised if a line in the bill has nothing to do with spending, or if it is ‘merely incidental’ in its effect on the budget – in which case the line gets struck out. If Frumin agrees that a line doesn’t have a budgetary focus, then the unlikely thing is that the line can be deleted from the bill by the parliamentarian without consultation with the Senate. Though, as said, this is unlikely.
The more likely route is that Mr. Alan Frumin would be looking through the local DC papers for a new job and Mr. Joe Bloggs, loyal and die-hard Democrat, will be the new parliamentarian and will clearly see that the whole health care bill is a budget bill. The Senate Majority Leader can fire him the parliamentarian at a whim, and appoint a a new one just as easy. It happened with the last one (Robert Dove) when the then-Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) pushed him out, hard, because he made a handful of ruling Republicans weren’t happy about and he wouldn’t let the Bush tax cuts get through on reconciliation. Democrats, if they want to play as hard as Republicans, could do the exact same thing.
You can overrule the parliamentarian without canning his ass. The senator who raised the point of order can call for a vote, and if they manage to get 60 votes, then the ruling is overruled. Of course, that will never happen: Republicans need 19, and there’s no enough Democrats looking to end their career; Democrats need 1, but going this route will infuriate every Republican than none will break ranks (and any that might break rank would have made up the 60, not needing the reconciliation process anyway).
At the end of the process, the remaining bill only requires a 51 vote majority (50 with the VP to break the deadlock), and therefore passing the whole 60 vote supermajority (in a sense). The process has also been used some 20 times, to great effect (even passing things you wouldn’t think would get past), so there is obviously a group of people who know how to word things perfectly to get things through. The committee that writes the bill can even get an unofficial early read from the parliamentarian’s office to see if what will get through and what won’t and can then adjust accordingly to the point the thing will get through when it comes to the official reading. It’s no fool-proof (the persons raising points of order might find a part that the unofficial look the parliamentarian gave it missed).
The biggest, and only, reason every bill doesn’t go this route is that in 4 years time the bill lapses and need to be crafted and voted on again. Therefore, even if Obama wins reelection and the Democrats retain control of the Senate in 2014, by 2018 the whole health care debate will restart and, if Democrats don’t have control of the Senate, it all rescinds and there’s a massive black-hole in terms of healthcare. Republicans would almost be forced to craft their own bill, and they might just get something through on a floor vote that is permanent and worse.
Because the Democratic leadership seems to be, these days, a bunch of teenagers playing an adults’ game, they have only trotted out the reconciliation process as a last resort. They are getting to that point now. They have a window of opportunity to vote through the health care bill through both chambers before Scott Brown takes his seat and kills the supermajority. Get it through by early February and that’s that. But all indications are that they won’t do this: the temporary Senator Paul Kirk (D-MA) who will be replaced by Scott Brown has said he will stand down as soon as possible; Harry Reid (probably after talking to Kirk and realising he wasn’t good for a vote) then said that they will wait for Brown before a vote. But you never know in politics.
It would seem that the reconciliation process, while the last resort, will be the most viable alternative for the Democrats. What they will most likely do, if they go down Reconciliation Lane, is to split the bill in two – one that easily passes the parliamentarian inquisition – and another that will go to debate and (eventually, to break the filibusters that will result) require 60 votes to pass. But at least something gets through. And, with this option, a serious amount of good (good that wouldn’t be passed with the current version of the Senate bill) could get passed. The Democrats need something serious to go through for the midterms, and this might just be the best way to do that.
The Democrats need to show that they stand for something, and this is a way to do it.
Part two (of sorts) of this post appears here.