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Battle Brews Over Tactic to Win Passage of Health Bill

Source: WSJ

Posted on 02 Mar 2010

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The White House said Monday the leading tactic to win passage of the health-care bill was nothing extraordinary, rehearsing a key argument in the final public-relations battle over the bill.

For their part, Republicans accuse the Democratic majority of trying to ram through legislation using a parliamentary trick that Republicans say was never designed for such a big bill.

At issue is a procedure called reconciliation that allows the Senate to pass a bill with a simple majority, without needing 60 votes to override a filibuster. Before any votes are cast, both sides are trying to frame public views of the procedure.The battle is likely to heat up after President Barack Obama lays out his proposal for a "way forward" on health care. In a speech on Wednesday, Mr. Obama is expected to call on Congress to pass the sweeping Democratic health bill using reconciliation.

Mr. Obama is also set to revise the legislative proposal he put forward last week, perhaps incorporating some Republican ideas from the daylong bipartisan discussion over health care last Thursday.

In the last year, Republicans have often succeeded in portraying Democrats' tactics to pass a health bill as unsavory. A last-minute deal in December to win the vote of Nebraska Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson helped Republicans capture a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts the next month. Republicans have also accused Democrats of negotiating the bill in secret.

Mr. Obama and his aides have argued that Americans will warm to the health measure if they look at the substance of it, not the legislative sausage-making. And they say there is nothing unsavory about reconciliation, portraying it as enabling a simple "up or down vote" on the legislation.

White House officials are painting the Senate as a place dominated by obstructionists thwarting the will of the majority. The most recent example came last week when Sen. Jim Bunning (R., Ky.) single-handedly held up legislation that would extend unemployment benefits and fund transportation projects.

"There is a pattern and a practice of using extraordinary partisan measures to gum up the works in the Senate," White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said Monday.

Republicans argue that it would be unprecedented to use reconciliation for such a sweeping measure, and note that the procedure was originally designed for budget matters.

"Trying to jam their latest job-killing back-room deal through Congress using this procedural trick would be a serious mistake," said House Minority Leader John Boehner (R., Ohio).

Reconciliation has been used many times before, often by Republicans, to pass major legislation, including a significant welfare overhaul in 1996, and across-the-board tax cuts in 2001 and 2003.

The Children's Health Insurance Program was created using reconciliation, as was the Cobra law that allows workers to keep employee health benefits after they leave a job.

Republicans argue that any bill with such large implications as the health-care overhaul should pass only with bipartisan support.

"In this case, the Democrats say, 'We don't care if you accept it, we're going to jam it,' " said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) on Fox News.

Democrats say they are putting only budget-related portions of the health bill before the Senate in the reconciliation procedure. Unrelated provisions would be ruled out of order by the Senate parliamentarian.

Under the Democratic plan, the House would pass the sweeping health legislation already approved by the Senate. But there are several parts of that bill that the House cannot abide.

To fix that, both houses would approve a package of changes using reconciliation, under which only 51 Senate votes are required.

"The president believes that an up-or-down vote is necessary," the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said on Monday.

Another White House aide said it was doubtful that the president would use the term "reconciliation" in his remarks on Wednesday, even if he proposed just that.