Conrad opens door to reconciliation for healthcare

The Senate Budget Committee Chairman said Wednesday he’s willing to use special rules to force changes to the healthcare legislation through the Senate with a simple majority vote.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) made clear his openness to applying budget reconciliation to healthcare, a position he opposed prior to this week’s special election in Massachusetts, is contingent on the content of the bill.

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His comments lend weight to speculation that congressional Democratic leaders plan to have the House pass the Senate healthcare reform without changes, then pass a second bill with changes hashed out between the two chambers' leaders and the White House.

"If the House passed the Senate bill, could reconciliation, that process, be used to fix things that might be improved upon? Yes," Conrad said. "Would I support it? I can’t know that without knowing what would be included in the package."

With the election of Scott Brown (R) to the Senate in Massachusetts Tuesday night, Democrats now control 59 seats, one shy of the number they need to defeat a Republican filibuster and pass another healthcare bill through regular procedures, making reconciliation a potentially attractive option to move their bill forward.

Conrad said his opposition to moving the entire healthcare reform bill through reconciliation remained unchanged. He and other Senate Democrats have argued that the parliamentary rules governing reconciliation, which would permit opponents of the bill to object to any provisions that do not directly affect the budget.

"I have never supported the use of reconciliation for healthcare reform writ large,” he said Wednesday. “I’ve never thought that would work. I think the reason it wasn’t used is it became clear to others that it wouldn’t work for a whole series of reasons."

Some of the key compromises that were tentatively made between House and Senate Democratic leaders and the White House last week, however, could fall under the rubric of a budget reconciliation bill, such as changes to the taxes that would finance the healthcare bill. Conrad noted, however, that resolving disputes over issues like abortion funding and immigration would be much harder to accomplish through reconciliation.
 
Liberals in and out of Congress strongly favored using reconciliation from the start as a way of avoiding concessions to Republicans and centrist Democrats on proposals such as the government-run public option insurance programs but Senate Democratic leaders never embraced that approach.