March 1, 2010
In the wake of the "bipartisan summit" on health care that President Obama convened at the Blair House last Thursday, it appears that the Democrats are determined to use any means necessary to get their way on that critical legislative package. The White House claims they have enough votes to pass their version of health-care "reform," insisting on a prompt "up-or-down vote," apparently fearing that any further delays will allow opponents to mobilize public opposition. That means, most likely, the expedited process known as "reconciliation," which would enable the bill to be passed with a simple majority vote. This obscure, mysterious term has become the central bone of contention in Washington over the past few days. If the measure goes through without any Republican support, it would be an almost unprecedented raw power play on a vital issue to all Americans, with clear constitutional aspects. On NBC's "Meet the Press," Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) warned that if they did that, they would "lose their majority in Congress in November." See the Washington Post.
On the eve of that summit, Sen. Mitch McConnell sharply criticized the "legislative arrogance" and Democratic subterfuges:
In light of all these behind the scenes efforts to get around the will of the people, it's hard to imagine what the purpose of Thursday's summit is. If the White House wants real bipartisanship, then it needs to drop the proposal it posted Monday, which is no different in its essentials than anything we've seen before -- and start over. And they need to take this last-ditch reconciliation effort off the table once and for all.
I was pleased to see Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) take a strong, visible stand on this issue. He has been in the background of national politics ever since his failed run for the presidency in 1996. (Remember his trademark plaid shirt?) The leftists at thinkprogress.org point out that Alexander himself has personally voted for reconciliation at least four times, suggesting he's a hypocrite, but those were all on budget-related issues, not fundamental reforms.
How did we get to this point? Immediately after Republican Scott Brown won the special election in Massachusetts in January, taking away the Democrats' supermajority, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) switched his earlier position and said he might go along with using budget reconciliation to the health care bill. See thehill.com. That was a clear sign that the Democrats were seriously considering defying public opinion on this issue. For the "Party of the People," it's public opinion be damned!
Republicans have expressed outrage, but as Jeanne Cummings explains at politico.com, Republicans have used reconciliation more often than the Democrats since it was first used in 1980. It basically allows a Senate vote on accepting minor modifications to overcome objections from the House of Representatives, with limited debate and a short-cut schedule. The theory is that the full Senate has already passed the original measure, so that it should not require a 60-vote supermajority to pass a slightly different version over again, especially when it comes to taxing or spending measures that are required to keep the government running. The key difference between this situation and the historical cases is that the previous bills were budget related, in keeping with the original purpose by which the reconciliation procedure was adopted. Cumings also reminds us of one stipulation, that a "reconciliation bill cannot increase the deficit beyond the budgetary window." In other words, any measures passed that way have to be budget neutral over the long term.
The use and abuse of majority power is one of the touchiest subjects in the field of politics. It was nearly five years ago, in April 2005, that the Republican majority in the Senate considered using the "nuclear option" over the issue of judicial confirmations. (The Democrats kept blocking judges nominated by President Bush.) For the record, I reluctantly went along with that idea, against my better judgment. I was well aware that "What comes around goes around," and if it had passed, the Republicans would have been exposed to a vindictive, unrestrained Democratic majority after the 2006 election. In the end, thankfully, a compromise by moderate senators in both parties prevented that from coming about.
No surprisingly, Republican J.D. Hayworth is challenging Sen. John McCain on the grounds that McCain is not conservative enough, notwithstanding the fact that Hayworth acceded to President Bush's Medicare Part D entitlement -- unlike McCain! Hayworth has raised the issue of President Obama's place of birth, an issue which should have died many months ago. I commented on Bruce Bartlett's Facebook page:
The pseudoconservatives who remain obsessed with Obama's birth status are a cult movement, impervious to reason. Expecting them to apply rational criteria like the consistency of voting records is just not realistic. You're either one of them, or you're on the enemy's side. Since they are motivated by conspiracy theories and thrive on defeat, it's just a matter of time before GOP leaders realize they are political poison. But by then it may be too late.
I may not agree with McCain all the time, but at least his head is screwed on right. He is infinitely more worthy than Hayworth to serve in the United States Senate.