By Alexander Bolton - 03/05/10 04:00 PM EST
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is seeking bipartisan support to block Senate Democrats from using special parliamentary tactics to pass healthcare reform.
The Democratic strategy of using reconciliation to pass changes to the healthcare bill is reminiscent of Republican attempts to force President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees through with a simple majority vote, McCain said Thursday. He implored centrist Democrats to think about the consequences. He even invoked President Barack Obama’s own words to make his case.
And McCain reminded Democrats that he was a member of the bipartisan Gang of 14, which stopped Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) from using the so-called nuclear option in 2005.
It's time for a similar gang, he said. So far, he’s had no takers.
“Back a few years ago when the Republican side was in the majority and there was a movement toward the ‘nuclear option’ … I stood up as a member of the majority and said we should not erode the 60-vote majority rule that has prevailed here in the Senate for many years,” McCain said Thursday evening.
McCain noted that he took heat from fellow Republicans for standing up for their rights in the minority.
“That was not greeted on this side of the aisle, frankly, with approval by a lot, but what we did then was preserve the Senate,” he said.
In 2005, when Republicans controlled 55 seats, Frist was prepared to let Senate president and Vice President Dick Cheney rule Democrats’ filibuster of judicial nominees out of order. The ruling would have been upheld by a majority vote.
But the parliamentary clash was averted when McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) joined five centrist Republicans and seven centrist Democrats to deny Frist the votes he needed.
The Gang of 14 enraged conservative activists, many of whom still view McCain and Graham with suspicion.
McCain and Graham hope to repeat history by winning the support of enough centrist Democrats to derail Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) plan to use reconciliation rules to finish healthcare reform.
McCain and Graham took their first step toward soliciting Democratic support by offering an amendment late Thursday that would prohibit the use of reconciliation to consider changes in Medicare. It was offered to the tax extenders package pending on the Senate floor.
The Democrats would cut hundreds of billions of dollars in Medicare funding, including funds for Medicare Advantage Plans, to pay for new insurance subsidies. Democrats say that no regular Medicare beneficiaries would be affected.
The McCain-Graham amendment is a first step because it will likely not receive a vote on the Senate floor, said a GOP aide. The parliamentarian is expected to rule it is not germane to the tax extenders bill.
The Senate has already passed a comprehensive healthcare reform bill, but that legislation cannot pass the House unless certain changes are made.
Those House-demanded changes cannot win 60 votes on the Senate floor, so Reid plans to use budget reconciliation — a process that requires only 51 votes, or a simple majority — to pass a measure with the changes.
Republicans plan to filibuster the reconciliation process by offering scores of amendments to measure at the end of limited debate time. Party strategists expect Vice President Joe Biden to play an important role in ruling the Republicans’ dilatory amendments out of order.
The Senate parliamentarian will suggest a ruling but, ultimately, it would be Biden’s call — and he’s expected to side with Reid and strike the GOP filibuster.
McCain has warned that using reconciliation to complete healthcare reform would fundamentally alter the nature of the Senate.
On the Senate floor Thursday, he quoted then-Sen. Obama (D-Ill.), who made similar warnings about the GOP plan to strip Democrats’ power to filibuster judges.
Obama called it “a change in the Senate rules that I think would change the character of the Senate forever” and that would result in “majoritarian absolute power” in both chambers.
Democrats rebut this argument by noting that Republicans used reconciliation 16 times over the past 30 years to pass legislation, including broad, controversial initiatives such as welfare reform in 1996 and major tax cuts in 2001 and 2003.
The difference this time around is that it will likely require a ruling from the vice president to complete passage of healthcare reform legislation under reconciliation. That’s because Senate Republicans plan to offer scores of amendments once debate time has elapsed, a tactic that was not tried in previous years.