While in Sacramento, the big news I never got to report was that the US Senate basically laid down the gauntlet in the fight over health care, by adding a "reconciliation instruction" to the budget conferees for health care.
That means the Democrats can pass health care reform with just fifty votes, instead of the sixty it takes to break a filibuster.
The deal was hatched late afternoon and last night, in a five-hour negotiating session at the office of Senate Majoriy Leader Harry Reid. A trio of White House officials were there: Rahm Emanuel, Peter Orszag, and Phil Schiliro. Also present, along with Reid, were House Budget Chairman John Spratt and Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad.
The reonciliation instruction specifies a date. That date, according to one congressional staffer, is October 15. (The original House reconciliation instruction had a late September deadline.)
In other words, the House and Senate each have until that day to pass health care legislation.
If they haven't, then both houses will consider health care under the reconciliation process, which is relevant primarily for the way it affects the Senate. There will be a limit on the time of debate. Republicans won't be able to filibuster it.
This really changes the dynamic of the health care debate, from one where the Republicans can simply sit back and oppose, to one where they have to engage in the debate or risk getting shut out entirely. The President's changing perspective with regards to bipartisanship reflects the fact that he knew he had to change this dynamic. And emboldened by it, the Senate Majority leader can now apply the pressure.
In order for this bipartisan process to take root, Republicans must demonstrate a sincere interest in legislating. Rather than just saying no, you must be willing to offer concrete and constructive proposals. We cannot afford more of the obstructionist tactics that have denied or delayed Congress' efforts to address so many of the critical challenges facing this nation....
Make no mistake - we are determined to reform health care this year. Our strong preference is to do so by working alongside you and your caucus. The health of our citizens and our economy are at stake; neither will be able to recover if we do not....
We look forward to hearing your ideas and working with you. The budget we will vote on this week gives us nearly six months to work together toward a comprehensive reform bill. Let's use that time to work together in our common interest rather than against each other and against the interests of the American people.... There is a seat for you at the table; we hope you take it.
This doesn't completely ensure health care reform; there's the question of how you pay for all this, for starters. But it does force compliance in a way that was not possible before. And with Republicans flailing about, I'd say reform is much more likely.
However, there had to be some sort of bargain to Conservadems like Kent Conrad and Blue Dogs like Allen Boyd, both members of the budget conference committee, in exchange for the reconciliation instruction. Jon Cohn speculated that PAYGO rules would become law, which you can see as good or bad. I'm much more concerned that Social Security reform was put on the table as part of the deal.
One outstanding question is what Conrad may get in exchange for not standing in the way of reconciliation provisions.
“Would I want things? Yeah,” Conrad said.
Conrad and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, have long pushed for creating a task force that would write policy prescriptions for the government’s long-term budget problems that Congress would have to vote on.
When asked if this proposal could in some way be part of a potential deal on the budget resolution, Conrad only would say that many things have been discussed.
Obviously, we cannot allow Social Security, a successful program, to be altered in any way that cuts its already meager benefit. So we'll have to see how this plays out.
...I should note that ending the privatization of the student loan process was also tagged for reconciliation, and that should go through much more smoothly, because it closely reflects the spirit of reconciliation, which is used for cost-cutting and deficit reduction. Great decision.