Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has a very powerful tool at his disposal, but (true to form) he's not even admitting it exists, much less threatening to use it. The tool is called "reconciliation" and means (as I have written about previously) that budget bills which go through a certain committee process cannot be filibustered when they reach the Senate. Democrats would only need 50 votes (and Joe Biden's tiebreaker, if they couldn't get 51) to pass budget bills. Senate Republicans would be denied using their favorite obstructionist tactic, the cloture vote (the modern equivalent of the filibuster). Which may be the only way to pass President Obama's budget without significant parts of it being removed by balky Republicans.
So why isn't Reid brandishing this weapon in his rhetoric? Why isn't he using the phrases "give us an up-or-down vote" and painting every single cloture vote as "massive Republican obstructionism," every chance he gets?
A few braver Democrats who understand what the word "leadership" means (as Reid patently does not) have already hinted that upcoming health care bills and cap-and-trade legislation may use this reconciliation process to avoid such Republican obstructionism. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer takes the "leader" part of his title seriously when talking to The Hill recently:
Hoyer said he has spoken to White House budget director Peter Orszag about using the budget reconciliation process to win passage for the healthcare and climate change bills. Any legislation attached to reconciliation bills would need only a simple majority to pass through the Senate. Republicans, who still have enough votes for a filibuster, would likely recoil at the use of a special process to push through items they oppose.
Hoyer said that while he's open to using the reconciliation process, Senate Democrats are still holding out hope that they can get broad support for their agenda. He noted that Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has said he wants a huge majority -- as many as 80 votes -- for healthcare reform.
"If he has 80 votes, then we don't need reconciliation," Hoyer said.
But the flip side of that statement is: "If we use reconciliation, then we don't need 80 votes, or 60 votes, or even 51 votes." And you can sill get 80 votes, even with reconciliation -- nothing stands in the way of doing so. So why not use it?
Over in the Senate, the New York Times reports that California Senator Barbara Boxer knows how to use the reconciliation possibility as a threat:
The chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee is considering a bold budget move aimed at passing global warming legislation in the Senate without having to deal with an expected Republican filibuster.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said that she is researching the use of the budget reconciliation process as an avenue for passing cap-and-trade legislation now considered a key agenda item for President Obama.
"We're certainly exploring it as a possibility," Boxer said of budget reconciliation, a bill that cannot be filibustered and therefore does not require meeting the 60-vote threshold that has consistently been a key hurdle to passage of global warming legislation.
Debate over use of the reconciliation process for key policy items is always controversial in the Senate. Former President George W. Bush and Hill Republicans tried unsuccessfully to use it as a way to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.
But Boxer insisted that reconciliation should not prompt an outcry because the process is a part of the Senate rulebook. "That's not circumventing anything," she said. "I'm saying that we have a process here called reconciliation. It's sometimes used. It's sometimes not used. We're looking at that as a possibility. We're looking at all the options right now."
Later in the same article, Maryland Democratic Senator Ben Cardin backs up Boxer's play:
"I think it's a clear possibility. I think the bottom line is we're looking for ways to make sure these issues are considered. And there's an ability for the majority to enact policy in the Senate. There's a lot of ways to do it. And reconciliation is one of the tools."
Democrat Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota seems to suggest that it'll be used as a second (rather than first) resort:
"No decisions have been made on reconciliation," he told reporters. "We've got to go through the consultation process with our colleagues and determine the best course."
Even if the Senate opts against using reconciliation now, Conrad explained that lawmakers could return to the issue later this year with a second attempt. "I just laid that out there not because I have a plan to use it, but it seems to me as people think about this, they ought to know what the rules provide."
Republicans (not surprisingly), and Democratic Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, were quoted as being against the idea.
It is not as if this tactic were never used. Bush used it at least once to pass tax cuts for the wealthy. Wikipedia lists 23 instances where it has been used since 1980. Meaning it is a valuable and viable tool in the toolchest of parliamentary procedures available to Congress. Most especially in the Senate. So why is Harry Reid refusing to even talk about it? From the same article:
Democratic leaders were careful to avoid any commitments on the topic. Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), declined to comment.
Why this timidity? Why not start talking about reconciliation as a very real possibility, since Republicans aren't exactly flocking to support President Obama's budget priorities? There is a clear choice between (1) watering down the budget to court two or three Republican votes in the Senate, as was done during Obama's stimulus plan, therefore passing something weaker than it could have been; or (2) openly annoying Republicans by saying "we don't need your votes, but if you'd like to be part of the process, you're certainly welcome to participate." So why should option (2) be off the table from the start of the negotiating process? Why isn't Harry Reid telling Republicans "if you can guarantee five Republican votes for this bill, then we will not use reconciliation, but if you don't deliver on your promise, then every single budget bill will go through reconciliation," just to see what they say?
Reconciliation is a powerful tool in the Senate Majority Leader's toolbox. While used sparingly over the years, historical precedents should be tossed out. Because what they are trying to prevent -- cloture votes -- used to be historically rare as well. Until Democrats took over the Senate in 2006. Since then, virtually every piece of meaningful legislation has had to cross the 60-vote barrier in order to move. This is due to the Republicans sole remaining political strategy: "Obstruct everything, and sooner or later the voters will love us again." Meaning threats of using reconciliation should be framed as a reaction to Republican obstructionism, at every turn.
"Since Republicans have decided that they are going to filibuster everything in the Senate, in total defiance of the way cloture votes were used in the past, we are forced to use the Senate's rules ourselves in order to get something done. The American people are tired of Republican obstructionism, so we are fully prepared to use every method available to us to get a budget passed. Republicans can either join in the negotiations, or they can get out of the way, because the American people elected us to get some important things done, and that is fully what we intend to do -- with or without the Republicans' help."
Of course, it's kind of hard to see Harry Reid saying something like that. But that is exactly what needs to happen. Harry Reid has to start standing up for his own party's interests a lot more strongly, or the Senate Democrats need to start looking for a better leader in the Senate.
My vote, at this point, would go to Senator Barbara Boxer. Even while Reid is undercutting her efforts, she is showing what leadership truly looks like in the United States Senate.
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com