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Centrist Democrats May Be Open to Reconciliation Tactic

By John Reichard, CQ HealthBeat Editor

Feb. 23, 2010 -- For all their talk that something as big as a health care overhaul ought to be done in a bipartisan fashion, Senate moderates and centrists seemed remarkably open Tuesday to using the divisive budgetary maneuver known as reconciliation to get legislation on the desk of President Obama.

White House officials said Monday that President Obama is willing to use the tactic to move legislation through the Senate with 50 votes and the approval of Vice President Joseph Biden. Officials said that Obama believes the American public has a right to a straight "up or down" vote if Republicans take the "extraordinary" step of trying to filibuster a health care overhaul.

Sen. Evan Bayh, the Indiana Democrat who recently announced he won't run for re-election this fall because of the absence of bipartisanship in the Senate, indicated that reconciliation may have its place if Republicans are consistently obstructing legislation.

Bayh and other senators reacted to the maneuver in remarks to reporters going to and leaving a mid-day luncheon meeting of the Democratic caucus.

"Obviously, if the minority is just frustrating progress, that argues for taking steps to get the public's business done," Bayh said when asked whether he's more open to the use of reconciliation now that Obama has released his plan for resolving differences between House and Senate-passed legislation.

"At the same time, I do think that that would probably mean we're not going to get much done around here the rest of the year because the Republicans would probably just shut the place down. But you can make an argument that they're doing that anyway," Bayh said.

Bayh hedged, however. He said he hadn't looked at the Obama package of fixes in detail and that doing so would affect his views on using the tactic. "Well, these things are somewhat related," he said. "I want to see what's in it, then I can make an intelligent decision on that." Bayh did say of the Obama proposal: "I am glad they've taken out some of the special deals and I think that's a good thing."

Sen. Kent Conrad, who has said a number of times that reconciliation would be a very difficult way to move health care overhaul legislation, sounded more conciliatory Tuesday. The North Dakota Democrat previously has said that budgetary points of order would lead to the elimination of key provisions, producing "Swiss cheese" legislation. But moving a smaller package of House-approved fixes using the tactic is a different story, he suggested.

"Dealing with the whole health care bill in reconciliation? Very hard for me to see how that works," Conrad said. "What is possible is for the House to pass the Senate bill, then to deal with things around the edges that need to be fixed and improved through reconciliation. But that presumes that the House would pass what the Senate passed as the core bill and then to make (changes) through reconciliation. That is a very different circumstance than trying to deal with the whole bill through reconciliation, which as I've described would be very difficult to do."

The special deal that drew the most criticism in the bill (HR 3590) passed by the Senate Dec. 24 was a provision for full federal funding for Nebraska of the costs of expanding Medicaid.

Sen. Ben Nelson, the Nebraska Democrat who demanded that proposal and other provisions, said Obama's plan to drop the provision was "absolutely a welcome development." Nelson was the last Senate Democrat to commit to vote for the health care bill.

Nelson said that what he's wanted all along is more federal help for all states in picking up the costs of an expansion. Obama's revision would add a fourth year in which the federal government fully picks up the tab for all the states. In 2018 and 2019, the feds would pay 95 percent of costs and 90 percent thereafter.

Nelson delivered no overall verdict on the Obama plan, saying, "I've just seen the outline."

Asked whether he would oppose legislation moved using reconciliation, Nelson said, "I'm focused on what's in a health care bill more than I am on procedure. My preference has been to get 90 votes. To have something that's broadly bipartisan. But in this era of obstructionism, I'm much more interested what's in the legislation."

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., who caucuses with Democrats, wouldn't rule out support for a health care bill that involved use of reconciliation. "I don't prefer reconciliation," he said. "I've always wanted something as big as health care reform to be bipartisan and to be adopted under the regular order which would be the 60 votes. So I still haven't given up hope on that." But Lieberman said when asked if reconciliation would be a deal killer, "I haven't decided yet."

Republicans, meanwhile, said Obama's willingness to use the tactic shows the emptiness of his rhetoric about wanting to use the upcoming health care summit meeting Thursday to kick-start a new bipartisan approach.

"We will be at the meeting on Thursday and anxious to participate in the discussion, but it appears as if the administration has already made up their mind to go forward with a beefed-up Senate version and to try to jam it through under a seldom-used process that we commonly refer to around here as reconciliation," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. McConnell spoke to reporters after a GOP caucus luncheon.

McConnell said polling shows the Democratic overhaul is highly unpopular. "So this strikes me as a rather really arrogant. . . effort to say to the American people we're smarter than you are," he said.

"We're happy to go down there," McConnell said concerning the summit. "I'm always pleased to see him. He's fun to be around, and I'm sure we'll have a great six hours. But it looks to me like he's already posted on the Internet what he would like to see the majority jam through," McConnell added.

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