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Democratic Leaders Discussing Budget Reconciliation Option

By David Clarke, CQ Staff

March 5, 2009 -- House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said Thursday that House and Senate Democratic leaders are discussing whether to use the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process to move major elements of President Obama's agenda this year.
At the top of that list are the president's health care overhaul and his climate change proposal, which would impose a cap on carbon dioxide emissions and then sell emission permits that companies could use or trade. A Hoyer aide said changes to federal student loan programs also are on the list.

The Maryland Democrat emphasized that no decisions have been made, and that leaders have just begun discussing how to proceed a week after Obama released a preliminary fiscal 2010 budget blueprint. A more detailed budget will be released in April.

"I think it would overstate to say that we're urging them to do that," Hoyer said of House leaders' discussions with their Senate counterparts over whether to use the reconciliation process "It would not overstate to say this is the discussion so that we can facilitate the adoption of policies that we think are important in a procedural way in the Senate that can be effective."

Under the budget reconciliation process, legislation affecting tax and mandatory spending programs can be moved through the Senate by a simple majority vote, rather than the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. That is an appealing prospect for Democrats, who would have to hold all 58 of their senators in line and win over at least two Republicans to advance Obama's agenda by the normal legislative process. With Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., battling brain cancer, they probably would need three Republicans for most votes.

Senate Hesitation
Since taking back control of Congress in 2007, House Democrats have often been frustrated by the ability of the GOP minority in the Senate to block or dilute Democratic legislation.

But some key Democrats in the Senate are hesitant to use reconciliation to get around this problem. Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., has said he would prefer not use it to advance health care legislation because he wants as much bipartisan support as possible for that initiative. If Democrats use reconciliation and therefore only need 51 votes to advance the bill, they are likely to make fewer concessions to Republicans—and to draw few if any GOP votes as a result.

"Easy is not always best," Baucus said. "It becomes partisan, and if it becomes partisan, even if you get a partisan solution, it tends not to be lasting. You can jam something down somebody's throat ... but the point is it's by far better to be inclusive than exclusive."
Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said he has been resisting use of reconciliation for health care or climate change legislation, arguing the process was designed to move bills whose primary purpose is to reduce the deficit.

Obama laid out an aggressive agenda last week that will be difficult to achieve, but congressional Democrats plan to move as much of it as possible this year.

"The president has put forward a very ambitious—not unrealistic, but ambitious—proposal. He has done so consistent with what he has told the American people," Hoyer said.

Budget Timing
The House plans to consider the fiscal 2010 budget resolution the week of March 30, Hoyer said.

The resolution is a blueprint that does not become law but sets the cap on discretionary spending—the funding controlled by the Appropriations panels—for the fiscal year and establishes the parameters for tax and mandatory spending policy. It also can include reconciliation instructions to any committee.

These provisions instruct a committee to produce legislation by a certain time that would impact revenue or mandatory spending levels. That legislation, which can address a variety of policy issues so long as it meets the tax or spending targets, can then be moved on the Senate floor without threat of a filibuster.

Hoyer said he expects the House to move an energy bill before the Memorial Day recess but was not sure that it would include the administration's cap-and-trade proposal.

He said the target for moving a health care overhaul through the House is before the August recess, and that Democratic leaders in both chambers want to work together closely on the legislation so that the House doesn't pass a bill that would be rejected by the Senate.
Hoyer said he did not think the budget produced by the House would show lower deficits than what the Obama administration has projected over 10 years. He said the unique economic situation would make it difficult to do so, and that he expects deficit hawks in his own party, including the 51-member Blue Dog Coalition, will not balk if the congressional budget does not attack the deficit more aggressively than the administration's plan.

"I think most of the members understand it will be difficult to get better numbers than are projected," he said. "The Blue Dogs are pragmatic realists who have a principle of getting to balance that I share passionately but also a realistic understanding of how you can get there politically and fiscally."

Drew Armstrong contributed to this report.

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