Friday, September 25, 2009

Reconciliation and Healthcare Reform

Frustrated Democrats have been talking for some time about using reconciliation to get healthcare reform through. Under this relatively obscure parliamentary tactic, Democrats would just need 51 votes to pass reform. They could afford to lose wavering moderates like Evan Bayh or Kent Conrad.

Republican Senators have warned of bad consequences if Democrats use reconciliation. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) warned of a “severe reaction.” Republicans might try and shut down the government. But that could end badly for them. Medicare and Social Security checks wouldn’t go out to senior citizens—a crucial voting constituency. In 1995, when Republicans led by Newt Gingrich shut down government during a budget battle, the public perceived that Republicans had overreached.

What should be most worrisome for Democrats is the potential political fallout. Using reconciliation would come across as a huge power grab to a large number of Americans. It might remind Americans of instances of Republican overreach during the Bush years when Republicans wanted to intervene in the Teri Schiavo case. That could mean political repercussions at the ballot box in next year’s midterm elections.

Passing healthcare reform through reconciliation might also make it impossible to win over Republicans in the general population. Now they will feel that healthcare reform is the product of bitter partisans on the other side. In the long term, some support across party lines is necessary to keep universal healthcare politically viable. So ideally, Democrats should try to craft a bipartisan bill.

I don’t worry too much that use of reconciliation will set a bad precedent. As McConnell himself has conceded, Republicans used reconciliation from time to time to pass tax cuts. True, healthcare is a bigger issue. But the point is that there was already precedent for using reconciliation to achieve policy aims before the healthcare battle. When Republicans are again in power, they would have considered reconciliation regardless.

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