Conservatives in Washington are adamant that Senate Republicans should pass a full repeal of the healthcare law next year, even if it means a certain veto from President Obama.
With Senate Democrats likely to filibuster any stand-alone repeal bill, conservatives say incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellThe Memo: Winners and losers from the battle over healthcare GOP senators pitch alternatives after House pulls ObamaCare repeal bill Under pressure, Dems hold back Gorsuch support MORE (R-Ky.) should use a procedural maneuver known as reconciliation to muscle through a bill with 51 votes.
Dan Holler, the communications director at Heritage Action, said “the most important” thing that Republicans could do in the majority would be to “use the reconciliation instructions to repeal ObamaCare.”
McConnell suggested at a post-election press conference last week that Republicans could take advantage of reconciliation, but did not commit to using it for ObamaCare repeal.
“There are some things we can do with 51 votes,” he told reporters.
McConnell appeared to throw cold water last month on a 51-vote strategy, arguing on Fox News that it would take 60 votes and a presidential signature to nullify the healthcare law.
"No one thinks we’re going to get that," McConnell said.
Republicans are expected to be six or seven seats short of the 60-vote majority needed to overcome filibusters.
Given that Democrats used reconciliation to pass the healthcare law in the spring of 2010, advocates on the right say it’s time to turn the tables.
“Reconciliation is now a vehicle by which you pass big ideas. It was used to pass ObamaCare so it seems legitimate to use it to fix its most onerous provisions,” said FreedomWorks CEO Matt Kibbe. “But they’re going to have to go big as opposed to the technocratic small provisions they’ve been talking about so far,” such as getting rid of the individual mandate, he said.
Reconciliation is a complicated procedural maneuver that can only be used for legislation that impacts the federal budget.
In the mid-1990s, the Senate ushered through President Clinton’s deficit reduction and tax package using reconciliation. Likewise, the Senate used the maneuver in 2001 and 2003 to pass President George W. Bush’s tax cuts.
Some conservatives question whether the strategy is worth pursuing while there’s a Democrat in the White House.
“Reconciliation works when you have a Republican president who will go with a Republican Congress. I don’t see a lot of opportunities,” said Sal Russo, founder and chief strategist of the Tea Party Express. “There are probably some ObamaCare fixes that perhaps would have Democratic support — the medical device tax [repeal] — but if it gets too aggressive, it’s not going to stand a chance of getting past the president.”
“I think it’s going to be a limited tool,” he added.
Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said Republicans would have more success tweaking the law than trying to eliminate it wholesale.
“The constant effort to repeal ObamaCare reminds me of how Democrats spent years and years opposing the Bush tax cuts even after they were well entrenched. I think the likelihood of repealing ObamaCare is zilch,” she said.
Using reconciliation for comprehensive tax reform seems even more unlikely, some groups say.
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said the Republican Congress should first quickly appoint a new director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and get in place new leadership at the Joint Tax Committee, which is made up of the Senate Finance Committee chairman and the chairman of the House Ways and Means panel. CBO and that panel would be responsible for estimating the costs of tax reform legislation.
Passing tax reform through reconciliation, Norquist noted, would only allow the measure to last 10 years, short of the permanent fix Republicans say is necessary.
“The obvious fix and the thing that could go inside reconciliation is the repatriation tax — bring the money back. That would be huge to the economy,” Norquist said, referring to the money that companies have stored overseas.
“Frankly, that makes tax reform easier because then when you do tax reform, you don’t have to worry about the money that’s over there because it won’t be over there. That strikes me as the low-hanging fruit,” he added.
Bill Hoagland, senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said Republicans should temper their ambitions for using reconciliation to implement a conservative agenda.
Hoagland, who worked on the Senate Budget Committee for nearly 20 years under Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), noted the process would require several arduous steps.
Republicans will need 51 votes in the Senate to pass a budget resolution, and then problems could arise trying to work out a conference agreement with the House.
After that, there would be at least 27 points of order Republicans would need to change to clear the path for a reconciliation bill that would strip away ObamaCare. Changing those points of order would require 60 votes, Hoagland said.
The Byrd Rule, named after the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), also prevents lawmakers from including measures in reconciliation that add to the deficit, among other things.
“The staff up there know a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act through reconciliation is unlikely because of the Byrd Rule,” Hoagland said. “If they try to repeal, a lot of the provisions that would be in reconciliation would be struck out and you’d be left with this Swiss cheese that wouldn’t make any sense.”
Hoagland said the GOP should first push for a stand-alone vote on ObamaCare and see how far they get. Based on that, he said they could use reconciliation for possibly reducing subsidies and changing some regulations.
“I’m hopeful they can pass a budget,” he said, “but let's be honest, if it’s a budget that’s going to be implemented, it’ll have to walk a thin line.”