By J. Taylor Rushing and Eric Zimmerman - 02/20/10 11:00 AM EST
Senate Republicans are claiming Democrats lack the votes to pass healthcare reform through reconciliation rules, but their math appears a bit fuzzy.
Senate Republicans on Friday distributed a press release titled “18 Democrats Oppose Health Care Reconciliation” with a breakdown of each senator’s statements on the issue.
A Democratic leadership aide said no one knows the real answer because Democrats haven’t whipped the vote count. Democrats are holding off on strategic decisions on how to get health reform passed until after President Barack Obama’s health summit at the White House on Thursday.
In the reconciliation release issued by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (Ky.) office, several Democrats were quoted from as far back as last March, and others were quoted before Sen. Scott Brown’s (R) stunning win in Massachusetts in January.
Stripped of their filibuster-proof majority of 60 votes by Brown’s triumph, Democratic leaders are considering the partisan budget tactic because it would only require them to amass a simple majority of 50 votes for passage, with Vice President Joe Biden casting the deciding vote.
Assuming all Republicans reject reconciliation, 10 Democratic defections would kill the healthcare bill.
A senior Senate GOP aide acknowledged the release used dated quotes, but said the purpose was to expose hypocrisy.
“The point was not that this release would be a marker for where they are now. We absolutely believe that they’ll flip-flop,” the aide said. “The point is that they have said clearly and unambiguously that they opposed this at one point, so they will have done a full 180… They oppose it on principle up to the point where they don’t have the votes, and then that principle fades away.”
The Hill contacted all 18 Democrats listed on the GOP press release, asking if they were opposed to using reconciliation under any circumstances.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), whose first choice was to avoid reconciliation, is not ruling it out.
Reid considers “all options on the table,” according to spokeswoman Regan LaChapelle on Friday. Reid was quoted in the Senate GOP release from last November, before he jettisoned a public option component as part of a larger healthcare bill.
Reid’s office on Friday told The Plum Line at whorunsgov.com that “if a decision is made to use reconciliation to advance healthcare, Sen. Reid will work with the White House, the House, and members of his caucus in an effort to craft a public option that can overcome procedural obstacles and secure enough votes.”
McConnell said in a released statement, “Using reconciliation would be an acknowledgment that there is bipartisan opposition to their bill, another in a series of backroom deals, and the clearest signal yet that they've decided to completely ignore the American people.”
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), one of the senators named in the GOP release Friday, signed a recent letter to Reid, urging him to use reconciliation to pass the bill with a public option included.
Democrat Evan Bayh (Ind.), who as recently as January had said using reconciliation was “ill-advised,” on Thursday told National Public Radio “it may be that that has to be ultimately resorted to because something to improve healthcare is better than nothing.”
At the same time, Bayh, who announced on Monday he won’t run for re-election in November, noted it would carry “very real consequences.”
“For starters, that would really poison the well for any sort of bipartisan progress at least for the foreseeable future,” Bayh said. “The minority would react very vehemently to that. But, you know, that might be something you ultimately have to do.”
A staffer for Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) struck a similar position as many wavering Democrats, saying her vote would depend on the legislation but that she is not unilaterally opposed to using reconciliation.
"She has openly said that she would not make any final decision on reconciliation or anything else until she knows what the package is they're voting on,” said the McCaskill aide.
Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who consistently urged against using reconciliation during 2009, told The Hill he hasn’t closed the door on using reconciliation rules to finish the bill.
On Friday, Conrad’s office said the senator’s mindset hasn’t changed, and that the question of his vote is premature because the final healthcare package is still being crafted.
Similarly, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who told an Omaha newspaper in September that he was against using reconciliation, told Nebraska reporters something different in late January.
“I want to make it clear: If I support a bill, then I will vote for it regardless of whether it takes 50 votes to pass or 60 votes to pass,” Nelson said. “My position doesn't change just because the House or Senate decides to change the process."
In a May 7, 2009, speech, Nelson said, “In my view, meaningful healthcare reforms are within reach and should be achieved in a bipartisan fashion without stifling minority views or using reconciliation.”
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who was quoted in the GOP release from 2009 and was one of the last Democrats to sign onto the bill in late December, also sounded open-minded on Friday.
“Sen. Landrieu has expressed concerns about using reconciliation to pass healthcare reform, but has not said that she would oppose reconciliation ‘under any circumstances,’” spokesman Aaron Saunders said.
Similarly, Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) is among those who refuse to rule out the option. “Up to this point, the senator has not stated a position on any proposals,” said deputy press secretary Max Croes.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who called reconciliation a “non-starter” in November, was even more blunt on Friday when asked if he would absolutely oppose the technique now. Rockefeller simply told The Hill, “No.”
And Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (Mont.), who spent several long weeks attempting to craft a bipartisan bill last fall, was more emphatic, quoted on ModernHealthCare.Com in Jan. 27 that reconciliation was “the only way.” Throughout 2009, Baucus stressed that the best way to pass healthcare reform was on a bipartisan basis.
Among other senators singled out in the GOP release Friday, Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) told a Pennsylvania forum on Feb. 1 that he is urging Democrats to use reconciliation, while Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) told an Arkansas newspaper on Jan. 27 he’s open to it. An Iowa paper, meanwhile, quoted a Democratic state senator who said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) advocated reconciliation in a recent closed-door meeting.
Democrats quoted in the GOP release who were unreachable Friday included Robert Byrd (W.Va.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Byron Dorgan (N.D.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).
In 2009 and in years prior, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) lambasted the use of reconciliation to pass bills, such as healthcare reform, that are not primarily deficit reduction bills.
In a statement Friday, Feingold said, "While I have not made a final decision, I have not ruled out the possibility of using the reconciliation process to advance healthcare reform. I want to see and read the bill first."
Bayh, Byrd, Nelson and Specter voted against the 2009 budget resolution that gave Senate leaders the option of using reconciliation to overhaul the nation’s healthcare system.