It's good to have a smart President & team that thinks ahead. NY Times:
Just a few months into his first term in 1993, President Bill Clinton went to Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the protector of Senate rules, to ask permission to use a fast-track budget process known as reconciliation to enact a bold health care overhaul.
The president did not get the senator’s consent, and he did not get a health care law, either.
Members of the Obama administration who were veterans of the Clinton health care collapse were not about to make that mistake twice.
“The No. 1 lesson from 1993,” said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff and a former Clinton aide, “was to make sure you could use reconciliation for health care and education.”
Last April, Mr. Emanuel and Peter R. Orszag, the administration’s budget guru, went to Capitol Hill to press Senate Democrats to make sure the budget then being written would provide the ability to approve a health care bill with the simple Senate majority that reconciliation requires.
Democrats, led by Senator Kent Conrad, Democrat of North Dakota and chairman of the Budget Committee, were skeptical, uncertain that the budget reconciliation process could even be employed that way. Hoping the theory would never be tested, Democrats inserted the procedural fail-safe in the budget document, allowing special protection for legislation covering health and education as long as it cut the deficit.
After a series of wild political twists and turns, that procedural emergency exit turned out to be essential to enacting the health care legislation after all.
“It worked out,” a beaming Mr. Conrad said on Thursday, minutes after the Senate disposed of the budget reconciliation bill and concluded its acrimonious health care debate.
But it did not work out as anyone had foreseen.
Early in the game, Democrats were talking about using the budget process to move the entire health care overhaul only if they could not corral the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster.
It was mainly a last-ditch contingency, one fraught with political difficulties. The mere mention of reconciliation drew howls of protests from Republicans who, though they relied on it to advance tax cuts in the past, said Democrats were preparing to abuse the process.
The Senate fight was of little import to the House, where the power of the majority negated the need for such a procedural shortcut. “It’s really an issue more for the United States Senate,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at the time.
As they studied the emerging health policy, Mr. Conrad and others became increasingly dubious that such a complex change could be considered under the tight reconciliation rules.
Democrats never reached that point. With the arrival of Senator Al Franken from Minnesota in July, they attained 60 votes in the Senate. One month later, conservative opposition to health care changes raged at summer town-hall-style meetings. Democrats concluded that they were unlikely to win any Republican support for their preferred health care approach.
Over four messy months of deal-cutting and hand-holding, Senate Democrats pulled together their 60 votes and passed the legislation on Christmas Eve without resorting to reconciliation. It appeared the special authority would not be needed.
Then, before the House and Senate could work out differences in their individual health bills, the political ground shook: Scott Brown was elected the new Republican senator from Massachusetts, and Democrats lost their 60th vote. Now what?
Given that Mr. Brown was opposed to the health care bill, the Senate could not pass a new measure negotiated with the House. And the House was not inclined to pass the Senate bill, since many House Democrats had serious reservations about certain elements.
As they debated the merits of moving ahead with the Senate bill or a scaled-down version and met at Blair House with Congressional Republicans, Democrats realized that reconciliation was their way out, and suddenly of great importance to House Democrats.
The idea took shape to include House-sought changes to the overall measure in a separate reconciliation bill, clearing the way for the House to pass the Senate measure. It was a complex and tricky strategy but seemed the best alternative for Democrats determined to press ahead with a major bill.
At the same time, Democrats decided they would add in a major overhaul of the college loan program, figuring if they were going the reconciliation route, they might as well go all the way.
While Republicans insisted that Democrats unfairly stretched the limits of the process, Democrats dismiss that claim. Democrats note that they did not employ the tactic to pass the overarching measure, which won 60 Senate votes back in December, but only the changes that fell within the budget rules.
Democrats also say their initial doubts about enacting the full health bill through the process were well-founded. Even the final, carefully drawn reconciliation bill containing fixes to the main health care measure did not survive the rigorous parliamentary review unscathed. Two minor provisions were struck, forcing the bill back to the House for a last vote. No doubt many elements of the main overhaul would have been stricken on procedural grounds.
“We would have been left with Swiss cheese for legislation,” Mr. Conrad said.
In the end, Democrats passed the reconciliation test, and their bill as well. Mr. Byrd, the parliamentary enforcer who thwarted Mr. Clinton back in 1993, was one of 56 who voted in favor.