Monday, 24 August 2009

How Obama will win budget reconciliation

Now I know why Obama looks so relaxed out on Martha’s Vineyard. Apparently the people who explained the budget reconciliation process to me had their facts wrong. October 15th isn’t the date by which the reconciliation process must be completed. That is the date it must begin. So Obama has all the time in the world.

In April, when Obama was getting his budget passed, the Democrats slipped a tiny bit of text called a “reconciliation instruction” into the budget bill. What that means is that if a particular legislative issue (health care in this case) is not resolved by a certain date (October 15 in this case), that particular issue can pass through the Senate by means of reconciliation, which means there is only limited debate, and that it only needs a majority vote to pass, not 60.

There are two kickers.

First, everything that goes through budget reconciliation must obey the Byrd Rule: that means that the legislation must pertain to major changes to the budget; the Democrats would carefully write the public-option language to make sure they meet that standard, and presumably consult the Senate parliamentarian, and possibly Byrd himself. Anything that does not pertain to the budget would need to be passed in a separate bill which would require 60 votes like any other Senate bill; an example of such provisions would be the controls which Obama wants to impose upon the insurance industry, proposals which are actually very popular. Back in 1994 the parliamentarian shot down most of Hillarycare, deeming it “non-budget”, but the parliamentarian was backed up by a much stronger Senator Byrd than we have now, and by a much more conservative Senate than we have now. Today it wouldn’t be as hard. There is, however, a way around the Byrd Rule, even if the provisions are ruled “non-budgety”: with 60 votes, you can get a “Byrd-Rule Waiver” which reduces the threshold back down to 50+1.

Such waivers have in fact been used successfully, once with a Democratic Senate in 1990 and once with the GOP in 2001. So when the Republicans screech that the Democrats are breaking the rules, point out to them that not only have the Republicans used reconciliation in the past to ram their bills through, they have also used the Byrd-Rule Waiver. So STFU.

Second, Obama had to pay a price to get the reconciliation instruction into the budget bill. Two Democrats (Kent Conrad being one) objected to the instruction, so Obama got them to change their minds by promising them that any health bill would meet the “pay-go” standard: it must be revenue-neutral. That’s why Obama has harped on the issue of making the books balance for the health care bill.

So there are several scenarios, which lead to a big Obama win:

The Democrats persuade the Senate to waive the Byrd Rule, and the whole package passes under the 50+1 threshold (50 Democratic Senators, and VP Biden breaking the tie). Some Democrats want to do it all in one go, because it’s quicker and there are fewer opportunities for Republican mischief or last-minute extortion from the Blue Dogs.

The Democrats persuade the parliamentarian that virtually all of the package does address budget issues, and therefore the whole thing is acceptable under the Byrd Rule, with the 50+1 threshold. One way to do that would be to give the non-budget items enough fiscal backing to make them “budgety”, but that might also violate the “pay-go” line, so they need to be careful. If they do make that sale, the whole package passes.

The Democrats lose the Byrd-rule battle, so they must split the package into the budget half and the non-budget half, but they still persuade 60 Senators to approve the non-budget half, since it contains some very popular provisions to prevent insurance companies from screwing people over when they get sick. Some Blue Dogs could have their cake and eat it too, by voting with Obama on blocking the filibuster (which means you only need 50+1 to win), but against him on the bill itself. Both halves of the package pass.

The Democrats pass the budget half, but not the non-budget half. They circle back and pass the second half next year.

The Democrats pass the budget half but not the non-budget half, and use that issue to beat the Republicans to death with, during the 2010 campaign, gaining more congressional seats. And then the non-budget half passes in 2011.

The ONLY scenario which leads to an Obama loss, is if the public option itself fails to receive 50 votes. That would mean 11 Senators either being too sick to attend, or openly defying their still-popular president, and risking disaster for their own party in the next two election cycles. Even counting Byrd and Kennedy as shaky, the Republicans would still need to persuade NINE Democratic Senators to openly betray their president and their party. Unlikely.

So things are looking pretty good for Obama, out there on the beach. And there are two more reasons for him to smile.

First, the Republicans have shot their wad. They have launched an endless series of progressively more silly lies and outrageous attacks, and 77 percent of the American people still want the public option. What do they have left to fight with? Another two months of even sillier lies? Obama’s golden, unless McConnell pulls out some unforeseen parliamentary miracle. And as smart as McConnell is, he either failed to see the reconciliation instruction coming in April, or he failed to figure out a way to stop it.

Second, Obama is going to throw all the GOP lies right back at the Republicans next year, on the campaign trail. “Hey, look, folks, we passed health reform! Did government take over health care? No. And where are all the dead grandmas and dead soldiers? Where are the illegal immigrants crowding into our hospitals? Where are the free abortions? Where is the rationing?” That’s the trouble with lies….

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