WASHINGTON - Democratic leaders in the U.S. Congress face big decisions in coming weeks on how to move forward on two priorities for President Barack Obama -- energy and healthcare reform.
Work has begun on legislation at committee level but some Republicans oppose Democratic ideas about expanding healthcare coverage to millions of uninsured Americans and developing a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions.
Obama, a Democrat who inherited a financial crisis when he took over from Republican George W. Bush on January 20, has faced significant Republican opposition to his proposals to overhaul the struggling financial sector, lift the economy out of a deep recession and help homeowners avoid foreclosure.
Promoting clean energy and overhauling the healthcare system are also high on Obama's list.
A rarely used budget tool called "reconciliation" might help Democrats maneuver around Republicans in the Senate, where a united minority can easily block legislation.
But such a move would ignite a fresh round of partisan warfare and further undercut Obama's promise of a new era of cooperation between the parties.
Democrats are still smarting from the bruising economic stimulus battle with Republicans, who accused the majority party of trying to turn the United States into a socialist state with new, big government programs.
Senator Judd Gregg, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, told a top White House official this week that using the reconciliation process on healthcare or energy would be an "act of violence" against Republican interests.
Reconciliation would be written into the budget and give healthcare or energy bills to be drafted later a privileged status and an easier path to become law. Bush used the process to enact major tax cuts over Democratic objections.
Republican concerns about Obama's healthcare plan focus on the extent of the government's role in overhauling the $2.5 trillion healthcare system that now leaves an estimated 46 million Americans without coverage.
White House budget chief Peter Orszag did little to ease Gregg's fears, telling him at a Budget Committee hearing that the Obama administration was keeping the reconciliation option open in moving its priorities forward.
"What we have said with regard to both healthcare and energy is that we would prefer not to start there, but we're not taking anything off the table at this point," Orszag said.
FAST TRACK STATUS
Budget bills enjoy fast track status in Congress, requiring a simple 51-vote majority to pass in the 100-seat Senate rather than the 60 votes usually needed to clear hurdles and advance legislation. Democrats now hold 58 seats in the Senate.
By giving healthcare and energy proposals reconciliation protection under the budget process, Democrats would have the votes to more easily get past even the most robust opposition.
Some Democrats believe reconciliation may be the only path to advance Obama's domestic agenda, including healthcare.
"There is a sense that it might be the only way to make sure a few people in the Senate can't hold up what the rest of the country wants," said Representative Dan Maffei.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said Democrats would like broad support on health legislation but not at any cost.
"If you make bipartisanship the primary goal, you empower the Republicans to move the bipartisanship goal posts until the election is completely undone and that is not what America chose," he told reporters.
Democrats write reconciliation into the broad budget resolution that Congress must pass before getting to work on individual spending bills.
But there are pitfalls. Reconciliation is supposed to be used to reduce the deficit, meaning anything in the bill not directly related to that goal could be challenged in the Senate.
"I think there are many problems with trying to use reconciliation for large substantive legislation," Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, a Democrat, told reporters.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by John O'Callaghan)
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