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Dems may take shortcut in passing health overhaul

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[February 26, 2010]  WASHINGTON (AP) -- Democrats struggling to enact President Barack Obama's health care overhaul may take a seldom-used Senate shortcut. That prospect has infuriated Republicans who, it turns out, have used the process far more than Democrats.

InsuranceThat's just one hint of the pressures, emotions and uncertainty that Democrats' use of the so-called reconciliation process would unleash for both sides.

It would put an obscure, appointed Senate staffer -- its parliamentarian -- in a political crucible for one of the year's most momentous legislative and political showdowns. It would raise questions about how extensive the legislation would be, due to limitations on the process. And in the end, it may boil down to a physical endurance test as GOP senators try stopping the measure with an endless parade of votes.

After a year that has seen nothing go easily in his health care drive, Obama began building a case Thursday for using reconciliation, sometimes called the "nuclear option." The process would let Senate Democrats derail a GOP filibuster -- delays that take 60 votes to end -- and muscle a bill through with a simple majority. Republicans have had 41 Senate seats since their surprise win in last month's Massachusetts special election.

"I think most Americans think that a majority vote makes sense," Obama told Republicans Thursday at his daylong health care summit with top lawmakers.

Republicans say reconciliation was never meant for legislation as sweeping as reshaping the country's health care system. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Obama's presidential opponent in 2008, told Obama it would harm the nation's future, while Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., asked him to "renounce this idea of going back to the Congress and jamming through" a reconciliation bill.

History shows that with the tables turned, Republicans have embraced the process. Of the 22 reconciliation bills Congress has sent a president since the procedure was first used in 1980, 16 were approved by a Republican-controlled Senate, including for President George W. Bush's big 2001 tax cut.


Democrats have resisted using the process until now, in part because they know it could prompt retaliation.

"It would poison the water for any kind of bipartisanship at all on subsequent legislation this year," said G. William Hoagland, a former top Republican Senate aide. "On things they might want to do on financial reforms or energy or cap and trade, anything. I just think Republicans will say, 'OK, you can shut this place down and we'll come back in November'" after congressional elections.

At a time when some think the Massachusetts Senate race and other recent elections show a distaste for an expensive health overhaul and how Washington works, Democrats worry that using reconciliation could turn off some voters.

"If Democrats rely on reconciliation, there will be those who ask, 'What part of 'no' don't you understand?'" said Robert Reischauer, former chief of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Under Democrats' current plans, the House would approve the huge health overhaul bill the Senate passed Christmas Eve. A separate reconciliation bill would make changes in that measure to reflect compromises Democrats reached among themselves in January.

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Reconciliation bills are supposed to reduce the deficit and may not include provisions "extraneous" to taxing and spending.

Analysts say that means Democrats would probably change the Senate bill by improving subsidies, easing a tax on high-cost insurance plans, enhancing prescription drug benefits for the elderly and cutting or increasing Medicare and Medicaid. They could eliminate the politically embarrassing federal aid the Senate approved for Nebraska for expanded Medicaid coverage.

But the rules will make it hard for reconciliation to change Senate language covering abortions and eligibility of illegal immigrants, creating a new board to regulate Medicare rates or establishing wellness programs.

Advising the Senate on which items can be included in the bill will be its parliamentarian.

Technically, the presiding senator -- in effect, the Democratic majority -- makes the final ruling and can only be overridden by 60 votes -- which Democrats no longer have. That could create dramatic showdowns, but parliamentarians are seldom ignored for fear of retaliation when a party falls into the minority.

That means enormous pressure for Alan Frumin, 63, the parliamentarian who has served under Republican and Democratic majorities. He did not respond to a request for an interview.

"You come under enormous lobbying by senators on both sides, staff on both sides," said Robert Dove, parliamentarian under GOP majorities until he lost his job in 2001 after angering Republican leaders with rulings on budget bills. "The Senate is a political institution."

The rules allow just 20 hours of debate, but Republicans would still have opportunities for delay.

The time limit excludes reading and voting on amendments or breaks known as "quorum calls." After 20 hours, an unlimited number of amendments can voted on without pause or debate -- an exhausting process informally called "vote-a-rama."

There is no limit on the number of amendments, so theoretically Republicans can keep proposing them indefinitely. The question is one of endurance.

"They come to an end not because there's a procedure for ending it, but because people ultimately get exhausted," said James Horney, a former Democratic congressional aide. "They just quit doing it, they can't sit there any longer."

[Associated Press; By ALAN FRAM]

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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