Alexander: Budget Reconciliation Will 'End The Senate'

Anyone who has observed the goings-on in the U.S. Senate for the past couple of decades can tell you that the budget reconciliation process is a commonly-used parliamentary procedure that both sides have embraced as a way to get legislation passed -- even controversial legislation, like opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

But if you listen to Lamar Alexander talk about it, you'd come away believing that it's a tool of impending tyranny that will destroy the Senate entirely.


The reconciliation procedure is a little-used legislative procedure -- 19 times, it's been used. It's for the purpose of taxing, spending, and reducing deficits. But the difference here is, that there's never been anything of this size and magnitude and complexity run through the Senate in this way. There are a lot of technical problems with it, which we could discuss. It would turn the Senate, it would really be the end of the Senate as a protector of minority rights, the place where you have to get consensus, instead of just a partisan majority.

As Pat Garofalo points out, "If using reconciliation were really 'the end of the Senate,' the Senate would have died a long time ago, and Lamar Alexander would have been complicit in its death." Garofalo's colleague Igor Volsky tracks four occasions where Alexander personally voted to destroy the Senate:

- 2003 Bush Tax Cuts: The Congressional Budget office, Bush's tax cuts for the rich increased budget deficits by $60 billion in 2003 and by $340 billion by 2008. The bill had a cost of about a trillion dollars. [Alexander voted yes.]

- 2005 Deficit Reduction Act of 2005: The bill cut approximately $4.8 billion over five years and $26.1 billion over the next ten years from Medicaid spending. [Alexander voted yes.]

- 2005 Tax Increase Prevention and Reconciliation Act of 2005: The bill extended tax cuts on capital gains and dividends and the alternative minimum tax. [Alexander voted yes.]

- 2007 College Cost Reduction and Access Act: The bill forgave all remaining student loan debt after 10 years of public service. [Alexander voted yes]

You can expect to hear more of this sort of doomsaying in the days to come. In fact, the seeds were planted a long time ago. Back in August, an AP article first referred to the reconciliation process as "the nuclear option." As Jonathan Chait astutely observes, we've heard this term before:

In 2005, Senate Republicans became exasperated that Democrats began using the filibuster against judicial nominees, which had happened in the past but with less frequency than Democrats were employing it. So they threatened to impose what they called "the nuclear option" -- changing the rules mid-session by a majority vote to forbid filibustering judicial nominees. (It was a ridiculous rule change -- eliminating the filibuster acros the board might make sense, but eliminating it only for judicial nominations, which are the one kind of vote for which a filibuster makes sense, was purely arbitrary.)

But now, reconciliation is the "nuclear option," and using this term, as Chait points out, is nothing more than "a pure exercise in partisan spin":

Of course, this is absurd. Democrats didn't say reconciliation was the end of democracy as we know it. They said that about changing the rules of the Senate mid-session to selectively ban filibusters. Yes, their rhetoric was overheated -- and some of us ridiculed it at the time -- but what they propose to do now is a completely different thing. Just because Republicans call both things "the nuclear option" does not make them the same thing.

It should be pointed out, in addition, that the reconciliation process is not going to be utilized to pass health care reform outright. As our own Ryan Grim ably clarifies: "Democrats, in fact, would not be jamming the entire package through using reconciliation. The Senate and House have already passed major health care reform bills. Reconciliation would be used to amend the Senate bill with small changes demanded by House Democrats."

I just wanted to point these things out, because we all know that people around here tend to start badly overreacting whenever someone starts talking about "mushroom clouds."

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