Know (and Discuss) Your Draconian Senate Measures!

By now it’s conventional wisdom that any health care bill — even one built more out of concessions to Republicans than actual good ideas — will face a Republican filibuster. The filibuster, of course, makes use of Senate Rule XXII, which requires 60 votes to end debate and move to a vote (cloture): if the Democrats don’t have the votes to end debate, whether or not they can pass the bill is irrelevant, as long as someone keeps talking to sustain debate. Thus, 60 is the number to beat. Tricky tricky.

Short of getting the requisite votes, there are two ways to end a filibuster — amend Rule XXII to permit cloture with only 50 votes (the “nuclear option”), or proceed to a process known as “reconciliation.” These are vastly different workarounds, with different short- and long-term effects, and just because conservative blogs don’t know the difference between them doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Let’s take the last first.

“Reconciliation” is a process in which Congress, by concurrent resolution, marks and consolidates budget bills through committtees, eventually resulting in a floor vote on a single “omnibus” budget bill. Amendments to the eventual bill are more difficult to submit, and debate is ended automatically after 20 hours, making a filibuster impossible. Reconciliation sounds magical — an easy way to bypass an obstructionist minority — but in fact it’s quite limited. The “Byrd Rule,” named for Robert Byrd (D-W.Va), requires that all budget-neutral matters be excised from reconciliation bills and voted on separately, meaning that only budget-related provisions make it into the omnibus bill. Accordingly, while Democrats may talk big about using reconciliation to pass the Baucus health care bill, or Senator Reid’s more progressive proposal, any bill that went through reconciliation would be a skeleton of the original health care bill bill, representing only budgetary allocations and devoid of substantive regulations on insurance companies. Don’t expect this to actually come up.

More useful — but probably less likely — is the “nuclear option”: an amendment to the Senate Rules to simply eliminate the filibuster altogether, and allow a bare majority to cut off debate. While reconciliation is often called a “nuclear option” by the less informed, removing the filibuster is the true, irreversible nuclear option first seriously proposed by Republicans in 2005, in that it destroys the filibuster altogether, giving Senate Democrats a free hand to legislate on any matter without Senate Republicans. Some on the right have tried to push a false equivalence between this tactic and the threat of reconciliation — but that’s just not true. Democrats don’t have the spine to talk about the real nuclear option, and they probably shouldn’t, as it would almost certainly scare away “Blue Dog” Democrats, and expend at one utterance all of our pent-up bipartian credibility.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it. A rumbling from the netroots about the need for the nuclear option, even unsubstantiated by any elected Democratic officials, could bring Republicans to the table.


  1. There is another reason the ‘nuclear option’ is a hushed issue. In the event this happens, the short term benefits are nothing compared to the likely long term detriments. Imagine a senate where a Republican party with a scant one vote majority can affect policy without regard to the other 49 senators, scary stuff. Further more, this makes following through on long term goals by either party impossible as the opposition will undo their policies as soon as the balance tips by a few seats. It would be a very Bi-polar and ineffectual system.

  2. I agree. It was a bad idea when the Republicans talked about it in 2005, but it did bring people to the table.

  3. I just want to see the Democrats push their policy through alone, whatever that takes. It would be nice to see them stand on their record alone.

  4. I just want to see the Democrats push their policy through alone, whatever that takes. It would be nice to see them stand on their record alone.

    Like how Republicans are standing on their record? Particularly when it comes to fiscal issues?

    1. I don’t get the connection? Are you saying that even if Democrats DO have to stand alone on this they will just spin it that it was a success no matter how it turns out?

  5. Yeah — as far as fiscal policy goes, Republicans seem to stand on the theory that some day, if elected, they might cut taxes and decrease government. But show me a Republican who’s done that, and I’ll show you…. uhh…. something rare. Yes. Oh! A bad episode of Glee.

  6. MIke,
    Republicans in Congress cry about how, especially when Democrats are in power, Republicans are all about fiscal responsibility. History proves otherwise. I’d put it this way:

    What Republicans say about Democrats “Tax and spend”

    What Republicans actually do “Taxcut and spend”

    Which is more likely to be fiscally irresponsible?

    And which has the offedning Party done more to run away from?

    1. Sure, all of that is applicable.

      The point I was making though is that if no Republicans vote yes on healthcare then it’s pretty hard to tar them if it fails. With spending/fiscal policy the Left signed on to a lot of that spending so it’s hard to call any one party responsible.

  7. Mike,
    If Deomcrats are “responsible” when they are in charge, then Republicans are “responsible” when they’re in charge. Its all about the majority, not the hangers on.

    1. Yeah – I kind of prefer that. When we have these muddled, lousy attempts at bipartisanship all it does is give both sides political deniability down the road.

      1. I’ll say this – there’s nothing muddled in Sen. Grassley’s response to “bipartisanship” on healthcare reform. After he got nearly everything he wanted out of Democrats on the senate Finance Committee, he strutted around preening about how the bill was moving farther to the left. Which he followed by voting against it.

        He can keep that form of bipartisan ship, as far as I’m concerned.

  8. […] Healthcare, Obamacare, Reconciliation Hey — you know what would kill the Stupak Amendment? Reconciliation. The process of “reconciliation” cuts off debate, terminates amendments except under […]

  9. […] to pass a separate, simple public option bill through reconciliation, now, if the current Senate bill […]

  10. […] First, don’t buy it. The “nuclear option” against which Obama and company argue in the video isn’t a single usage of reconciliation — it was a Republican plan in 2005 to flat-out remove the filibuster, permanently. Expect Republicans to continue to confuse the two “nuclear options” where it helps them. We saw this coming a few months ago. […]

  11. […] the device to only matters of taxing and spending. More accurately, the rule simply requires that all budget-neutral matters be excised from the bill. That means that the public option could pass through reconciliation; the ban on […]

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