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.