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Shortcut for Budget Reconciliation Mulled by GOP Leaders

By Paul M. Krawzak, CQ Roll Call

August 11, 2015 -- GOP leaders are considering an abbreviated form of the powerful budget reconciliation process this year, giving them the leeway to focus on other pressing matters while still issuing a prod to the president on the health care law.

Under the approach being discussed, the Senate would act on a House-written reconciliation bill to overturn the health care law, rather than going through the laborious steps it would take to write and debate its own measure.

An accelerated reconciliation schedule would take less time away from what lawmakers say are essential laws they must pass during an increasingly jammed legislative schedule. That includes finding a way out of an impasse over the fiscal 2016 spending bills, reviewing President Barack Obama's Iran deal, passing highway legislation, and extending tax breaks.

The GOP expects to use reconciliation to attempt a repeal of portions of the 2010 health care law. Even though Obama is almost sure to veto any repeal, many Republicans remain committed to sending a repeal to his desk and putting him on the record. Repeal remains particularly important to many in the conservative GOP base.

In general, reconciliation legislation is limited to measures that would result in changes in revenue or spending. A major challenge for Republicans is to write a reconciliation bill that would reduce the deficit, as required by the reconciliation instructions, given that the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that a full-scale repeal of the law would add to the deficit.

The House has passed numerous bills aimed at killing the Affordable Care Act but they have never gotten through the more narrowly divided Senate, where 60 votes are needed to consider most measures.

Ironically, letting the House write the reconciliation bill would be similar to the unusual tack that Democrats took when they used the expedited process to pass parts of the health care law in 2010. Contrary to the usual practice, the Senate skipped writing its own reconciliation bill and instead relied on a House bill. Reconciliation allows budget-related legislation to pass in the Senate with a simple majority.

Favorable Reactions

No GOP leader has confirmed a plan to let the House go first, but some high-ranking Republicans have spoken favorably of the idea.

"I certainly wouldn't rule that out," Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota said. "I would certainly be open to it only because, like I said, I think that anything that can help expedite our ability to process a lot of the things that we have to get done would be helpful."

GOP leaders have said little about reconciliation since the Senate completed adoption of the fiscal 2016 budget resolution (S Con Res 11) in May, suggesting it is no longer the priority it once was. It's even possible Republicans will put off reconciliation until next year, when there may be more time for it.

Republican senators said any House-written bill would have to be acceptable to them and also drawn to comply with the Byrd rule, named for the late Sen. Robert C.  Byrd, D-W.Va., which imposes complex limits on reconciliation in the Senate. "If we work it out between the houses and if it's a way to get it done more effectively, that sounds like a good idea," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said. "But I haven't heard any plan announced." 

House Ways and Means Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., said last month that one of his challenges in writing a reconciliation bill is to make sure it complies with Senate restrictions.

Best Odds

Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, who is pushing to use reconciliation to repeal as much of the health care law as possible, supports any procedure that would work, including letting the House write the bill.

"That does give us the best odds of getting something to the president's desk," Lee's spokesman Conn Carroll said. "I think that is the understanding of what is the best way to go about it." Lee and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., put out a joint statement last month pledging to use reconciliation to send a repeal bill to the president.

Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson, who sits on the Budget Committee, said it would be all right with him. "We'll see how the thing works out but I have no problem with the House sending something over to us," the Wisconsin Republican said.

Nevertheless, leaving the Senate out of this part of the reconciliation process would break with the usual practice, in which both chambers write and pass their own reconciliation bills before agreeing on common legislation in a conference committee.

The reconciliation instructions in the fiscal 2016 budget resolution direct the Senate Finance and the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committees to report reconciliation legislation to the Senate Budget Committee, which then would package the proposals into a reconciliation bill that would go to the Senate floor.

The instructions similarly direct the House Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, and Education and the Workforce committees to report reconciliation measures to the House Budget Committee, which would combine the proposals into a reconciliation bill.

Not Unprecedented

Though unusual, it is not unprecedented for one chamber to skip part of the process. When Democrats controlled both chambers in 2009, they wrote a budget resolution instructing two authorizing committees in the Senate and three in the House to report reconciliation legislation to their respective budget committees.

While the House committees reported, the Senate committees did not, and the Senate never wrote its own reconciliation bill. The House Budget Committee wrote a reconciliation bill early in 2010, and the House passed it. The Senate then took up the House bill, made minor changes, and sent it back to the House. The House cleared the bill for Obama's signature.

Apart from that instance, the House and Senate have almost always written and passed their own reconciliation bills and then gone to conference.

Jim Dyer, a principal at the Podesta Group and former staff director and clerk of the House Appropriations Committee, said it may be that neither party wants to spend much time on a debate over repeal.

"I don't think anybody is under any illusions about any level of success here," he said. "So you end up saying to yourself, 'Well, if you did this exercise—and it is time-consuming—but if you did this exercise what are you going to get out of it?'"

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