Reconciliation -- It's Like a Game; And A Student Loan Overhaul is Added

Former Senate Parliamentarian Bob Dove said today, at an in-town forum on filibusters, that reconciliation is "a game" -- and though it is dealing with a tremendously important issues (whether you are for or against it), Dove's right.


The exceedingly complex process, available as a result of the Budget Act of 1974, is chock full of rules and procedures, legislative potholes, a chess game to make a grandmaster think twice, that requires an intense amount of knowledge of the process in order to win. It circumvents a filibuster; mandates only 20 hours of debate followed by a period of back-to-back votes known as "Vote-a-rama." (Literally - they vote every 10 minutes with only 2 minutes of debate between each vote.)


Here's what you can expect to see in the next couple weeks (possibly longer):


Remember, the Senate passed an $875 billion health care reform bill on Christmas Eve (the 2,700-page bill). House Democrats don't like that bill -- with its special deals for Nebraska, Florida, and more; they also don' t like the excise tax that's slapped on high cost health care plans and the lower subsidy levels for those out of work and/or without insurance (among plenty of other items).


BUT -- they'll have to pass that bill first, because Senate Dems no longer have 60 seats in their chamber (remember Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts) so no bill can come back through the Senate under normal procedures (called "regular order"), and the Senate's Parliamentarian has told members that the Senate bill MUST become law before any reconciliation bill can get started.


That means -- Obama will have to sign the Senate's bill, once the House has passed it, making it law.


Enter Republicans who are raising the ominous specter that House Dems could get stuck with that Senate bill they don't like; reconciliation could die.


BUT -- there appears to be momentum in favor of reconciliation passing (at least right now). Key Democratic aides involved in the reconciliation process are more confident than they've ever been. One told Fox, "I feel good. Better every day."


One issue that's holding House Democrats up? Abortion. They're having some trouble rounding up the necessary 216 votes for final passage, because a number of pro-life Democrats don't like the language in the Senate bill.


In this instance, they WILL be stuck with the Senate product. Reconciliation rules require that anything under its protection have a direct, substantial effect on the budget. You cannot just legislate using this fast track tactic. SO -- that means, you cannot do anything with abortion.


Reconciliation was originally designed to make it easier for the majority to get politically difficult spending cuts and tax hikes through in order to get the budget under control. The process has been pushed and pulled and tugged in different directions over the past 20 years till it's hardly recognizable.


Anyway -- back to the here and now.


Democrats decided they are now not only going to put health care inside the reconciliation bill, but they're also going to put an overhaul of the college student loan program in there, too.


President Obama wants a to remove the banks and other for-profit lenders like Sallie Mae from the process, leaving the federal government as the direct lender. The Congressional Budget Office recently said that since some 2,300 colleges and universities have already gone over to direct lending, the legislation could actually cost much more than originally thought: $68 billion over 10 years, eating up the cost-savings projected.


Not only that, but Pell Grant use has soared in the bad economy, so it is conceivable the fiscal picture could worsen.


But Democrats are confident this will be a popular program, particularly since they are taking the power out of the hands of bankers - who are not exactly the most popular people around the nation these days.


Democrats are now most definitely in crunch time. Speaker Pelosi said she wants to see the House vote on the Senate's health care bill on Sunday, March 20 (hence the delay of Obama's trip to Indonesia, Australia). That would be followed as soon as possible by a vote on reconciliation.


That sure does not leave much time for the Senate to consider the reconciliation measure, and Republicans in that are sure to mount a vigorous assault on the bill.


And Republicans have promised to make the 2-week Easter recess, which starts March 29, absolutely miserable if health care is not passed through Congress by then. It will be August recess angry townhalls all over again.


Sen. Judd Gregg, R-NH, is the point man on reconciliation (top GOP'er on the Budget Committee), along with Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-IA, and the GOP Leader, Mitch McConnell, R-KY.


They'll work together with other members to challenge items in the Democrats' bill, AND they'll also have an unlimited opportunity to offer amendments to the bill.


Now -- those amendments must be "germane", or relevant, to the bill. But what does that mean?


Republicans will be able to craft amendments that deal with anything that falls under the jurisdiction of both the Finance Committee (taxes, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and more) and the Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions Committee (topics are self-evident there).


Can you say: tough political votes are coming!?


BUT --- one thing Sen. Dick Durbin, D-IL, the Majority Whip, said Thursday could surely ignite a firestorm in the Senate. He said, "There's no precedent for unlimited amendments during reconciliation."


Durbin implied that the presiding officer, in this case - many think it will be Vice President Joe Biden (he is actually the presiding officer -- though on nearly every day of the year, except when he's needed to break a tie or for some big, historic vote -- that job is delegated to a member, usually a freshman), CAN take charge and shut down the process.


I cannot find anyone who has heard of this happening before.


When asked at what point the presiding officer would do this, Durbin quoted former Justice Brennan, "You know it when you see it."


Sen. Jon Kyl, R-AZ, the Minority Whip, recently said that Republicans could probably go for about three hours --- certainly not three days, as some have suggested.


Either way this goes down, it is going to be messy, because though Democrats are definitely running everything by the Parliamentarian now, ensuring there are no challenges (Republicans do the same with their potential challenges ---- this is the normal process), Republicans are sure to craft some politically nuclear amendments that will later turn up in campaign ads.


It will be difficult and ugly, and already one GOP senator is saying he might just pull out of any bipartisan work he's involved in, if Democrats really go forward with reconciliation.


At a White House meeting on Thursday, Graham, who is working with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, on comprehensive immigration reform, said, "I expressed (to the President), in no uncertain terms, my belief that immigration reform could come to a halt for the year if health care reconciliation goes forward. For more than a year, health care has sucked most of the energy out of the room. Using reconciliation to push health care through will make it much harder for Congress to come together on a topic as important as immigration."