Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts is propelling Democratic discussions of resorting to reconciliation to evade a Republican filibuster on their healthcare bill — prompting conservative accusations of hypocrisy.
Only 51 votes are needed to pass a bill under reconciliation, which was designed for deficit reduction.
But Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., suggested, on the eve of Brown's election as senator Tuesday, that Democrats could use the maneuver to dodge an expected Republican filibuster.
Brown's victory deprives the Democrats of their 60-seat supermajority, but they could rely on the Senate’s two independents — Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut — who caucus with their party to cut off debate. Both voted in favor of cloture on the healthcare bill last month.
Concern about the reconciliation tactic arose before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delivered her own bombshell Thursday, when she acknowledged that she didn't have the votes to pass the healthcare measure as it stands.
Meanwhile, Heritage Foundation Senate expert Brian Darling told Newsmax that Durbin's suggestion about using reconciliation contradicts the spirit of the Senate and his own remarks from the 2005 debate over changing Senate rules to eliminate the filibuster.
Durbin defended the filibuster during a floor debate on Apr. 15, 2005, saying he had not been elected to serve as a rubber stamp for the majority. He also argued then that the filibuster is an essential part of the U.S. system of checks and balances.
The Republicans’ effort to do away with it at that time amounted to an “assault on this Constitution and the rules of the Senate,” he declared.
At the time, everyone from current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to then-Sen. Barack Obama and then-Sen. Joe Biden made similar comments.
When then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., took the so-called “nuclear option” off the table, Reid called it “a significant victory for our country, for our democracy, and for every American.”
“Checks and balances have been protected,” Reid said during a May 23, 2005, news conference. “We have sent an undeniable message. . . abuse of power will not be tolerated — not be tolerated by Democrats or Republicans, and your attempt I say to the president and the vice president to trample the Constitution and assert absolute control is over.”
During a news conference on May 17, 2005, Obama invoked his experience as a constitutional law professor and called the Republican effort a violation of 200 years of Senate precedent.
“What the constitution essentially says is that not only does the Senate have the power to advise and consent, but the very structure of the Constitution would argue that the minority party is empowered to force majorities to come to some forms of accommodation,” Obama said. “And that’s what we’re asking for here.”
Biden, who now says he supports eliminating the filibuster, denounced the Republican effort then to do away with the tactic and said it would “transform the Congress from a bifurcated legislature where political parties were never intended to rule supreme into a quasi-parliamentary democracy system where a single party will dominate.”
Left-leaning groups such as Media Matters for America contend this is a false comparison because Senate Democratic leaders haven't discussed publicly the idea of changing the rules to eliminate the filibuster. On the other hand, Republicans invoked reconciliation to pass former President George W. Bush’s tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, according to Media Matters.
The Congressional Record, however, shows that some Democrats expressed similar feelings about the Republican effort to use reconciliation in 2001.
During an April 2, 2001, debate, North Dakota Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad denounced the Republican majority’s decision to use the measure to pass the president’s tax package.
“The Senate was designed to be the cooling saucer, where calmer and cooler reflection could permit further analysis, unlimited debate, which each senator having the right to amend,” Conrad said. “All of that is short-circuited under reconciliation. All of that is out the window, and the Senate becomes a second House of Representatives.”
Conrad, who now is Senate budget chairman, told The Hill Wednesday he would consider using reconciliation to pass healthcare in spite of his previous opposition to the tactic.
Calls from the left to do away with the filibuster now that they have control of Congress are “pure hypocrisy,” Darling told Newsmax.
“Many of these same pundits and many of these same members of Congress for that matter opposed abolishing the filibuster before they supported it,” Darling said.
Democrats, including the president and vice president, used the filibuster when it served their purposes, but they have changed their tune only because it stands in the way of their goals on healthcare, he says.
“It’s ironic that Democrats had a 60-vote hammerlock on the Senate for the longest time [when they were in the minority], so they could do anything they wanted to do as long as they were able to keep their caucus together,” Darling said. “But that doesn’t seem to be good enough for them.
“They want the power to be able to marginalize the moderates in their own caucus, so the liberals can run the Senate and make the Senate a lot more like the House — a body that doesn’t have debate, nor the ability to amend bills.”
Republicans such as Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire say reconciliation could be a “heavy lift” for Democrats because large portions of the bill do not conform with the Byrd rule, which governs what can appear in a reconciliation bill. The end result for Democrats would be “Swiss cheese,” he told reporters Wednesday.
Durbin and Conrad did not respond to calls for clarifying comments on reconciliation.
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