Republican leadership is prepping a full-fledged assault on Democratic lawmakers for the possibility that they will pass health care legislation through reconciliation -- a process it's deemed the "nuclear option."
But as a bipartisan group of lawmakers gets set for Thursday's high-stakes health care summit, it's worth noting that several of the GOP senators attending have in the past supported the parliamentary tool that allows for an up-or-down vote.
Take, for instance, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Back in 2005, the Iowa Republican spoke approvingly of the Senate passing a budget resolution through reconciliation, which he deemed "an important tool to have at our disposal," precisely because of "partisan obstruction on the part of the Democratic leadership."
Then there is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), another Thursday summit attendee, who has begrudgingly acknowledged that past Republican use of reconciliation gives Democrats some freedom to deploy the provision themselves.
"I fully recognize that Republicans have in the past engaged in using reconciliation to further the party's agenda," McCain said in a speech before the Heritage Foundation in late March 2009. "I wish it had not been done then, and I hope it will not be done now that the groundwork has been laid."
Republicans who aren't attending the summit but have played a key role in the health care debate have also expressed support for the use of reconciliation in the past. Back in 2005, when the Senate was considering a filibuster of legislation that would have opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) said it was "totally inappropriate" for his Democratic colleagues to imply that reconciliation shouldn't be used for bills like that being considered. From the floor, he offered the following (VIDEO):
"The point, of course, is this: If you have 51 votes for your position, you win. 51 votes to say there shouldn't be drilling, that there shouldn't exploration, that this small postage stamp of land in this vast area of land should not be looked at for the purposes of giving us some independence in the area of energy... if you got 51 votes to say that, you win. If, on the other hand the senators from Alaska, who feel that in good conscience they had a commitment from this Senate for many years that they would be allowed to pursue this initiative... have 51 votes for their position, they win. That's the way the rules of the Senate are set up. So it is totally inappropriate for a senator to come to this floor and represent that this is some sort of unethical act [as] was implied by the senator from Massachusetts. We are using the rules of the Senate as they are set up to be used. And that happens to be the rule of the Senate."
This line of argument, of course, does not excuse Democrats from their own hypocrisy. Members of the party were once wary of the use of reconciliation for non budget-related legislation. Some still are (see: Conrad, Kent) But not every Senate Democrat shared the sentiment. And those who did were occasionally overruled. As pointed out by political scientist Joshua Tucker, "14 of the 19 times reconciliation was used between FY1981 - FY2005, it was used to advance Republican interests." Perhaps more pertinent to the current debate: NPR reported on Wednesday that many of the recent advancements in health care legislation were achieved through the reconciliation process:
[H]ealth care and reconciliation actually have a lengthy history. "In fact, the way in which virtually all of health reform, with very, very limited exceptions, has happened over the past 30 years has been the reconciliation process," says Sara Rosenbaum, who chairs the Department of Health Policy at George Washington University.
In short, complaints about using reconciliation now ring somewhat hollow, especially should they come from Gregg, Grassley, McCain or others. This includes Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) whotold the New York Times in March 2009, that the prospect of Democrats using reconciliation to pass health care "stinks."
But when the Bush administration was having difficulty moving its judicial nominees through Congress, the Texas Republican sang a different tune. In an oped published in the Times, Cornyn called the 51-vote rule a "consistent Senate tradition."