The Democrats' Trump Card

The Democrat-controlled Senate has yet to vote on a 2012 budget that would serve as a counterpoint to the Medicare-slashing Paul Ryan plan that passed the House. When Senate Budget Committee Chair Kent Conrad explained on May 19 why he wasn't taking a budget proposal to the Senate floor, he may have said too much.

Conrad, a member of both the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission, which failed to get the required votes for its deficit plan to trigger congressional action, and the now dismantled Gang of Six, which tried to hash out a deal on reducing the deficit, said in a press conference last week that voting on a budget bill in the Senate along party lines now would make it more difficult to use reconciliation to get a budget passed.

Remember "reconciliation"? Thanks to the crash civics lesson we all received during the battle over the Affordable Care Act, the public may recall that Democrats used this legislative trick to circumvent a Senate filibuster by Republicans and get health-care reform passed. Before Conrad, no one had floated the idea of using reconciliation to move the current budget fight forward, but it was built for moments just like this.

Reconciliation, a provision of the 1974 Budget Act, allows Congress to change key elements of the budget as an adjunct to the normal legislative process. The process offers a fast track for spending or tax deals by avoiding procedural hurdles such as the filibuster in the Senate; debate is limited to 20 hours, and a reconciliation bill only needs a bare majority to pass. In both 1990 and 1997, Congress used reconciliation to pass deficit-reduction packages that reflected deals between Congresses and presidents of opposite parties. In the current impasse over federal spending, reconciliation could pave the way for the "grand bargain" that many in Washington have been hoping for: The House and Senate can pass separate bills that allocate and cut federal spending or revenues by a certain amount; then they can delegate the details of what gets cut and what revenues get raised to the reconciliation process.

But it's not as easy as it sounds. To set it up, reconciliation instructions must be included in a budget resolution passed by both chambers. They were not included in the House budget, and in any event, the House and Senate would have to agree on an overarching budget resolution -- which doesn't appear likely right now. A more realistic scenario would have an extension of the debt-limit paired with some deficit reduction, in a bill that would have to break a filibuster.

As a political tool, though, the promise of reconciliation is a powerful one -- and one that liberals should be worried about. House Republican leaders have insisted they will only agree to a budget deal if the vast majority of their caucus agrees with it, and any deal that would satisfy House Republicans would likely only squeak through the Senate with a bare majority. Senate liberals may wish to protect such safety-net programs as Medicare and Medicaid or want a more equitable ratio between spending cuts and tax increases. Through reconciliation, fewer of those liberals would be needed to sign on to the deal because that process requires only 50 votes (Biden would be the tiebreaker).

There's precedent for the White House negotiating a deal with Republicans directly and forcing it to the floor; that's how the tax cut deal was negotiated last December. "Were Congress to actually pass a budget resolution with reconciliation instructions, then reconciliation would make such a deal far easier to pass," says Sarah Binder, professor of political science at George Washington University and an expert on congressional procedure.

Why would Conrad have to wait on his budget before putting this plan into action? Reconciliation instructions can be fairly loose, but they would lock Congress into either reducing spending or raising revenue by at least a certain amount. By waiting, Conrad gets more flexibility to apply the contours of the Biden deal to his reconciliation instructions.

This doesn't mean Senate liberals are completely outflanked. Reconciliation would have to come in the context of a budget resolution and would therefore have to make its way through the Senate Budget Committee. Democrats hold a thin 12-11 advantage on the committee, with liberals such as Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Ben Cardin of Maryland, and Bernie Sanders of Vermont on the Democratic side. Before halting committee work on the budget, Conrad was shifting it in a more liberal direction to get their votes. The committee was reportedly working on a millionaire's surtax and an equal mix of spending reductions and tax increases. Even if 50 votes existed in the whole Senate for a center-right budget, enough votes may not exist to get it out of committee.

To get past this, Conrad could just write new reconciliation instructions in a manager's amendment after a bill passes through the committee and bring the budget resolution right to the floor. If there's an agreed-upon deficit deal out of the Biden talks, one Senate aide told me, there would be significant whipping from leadership and the White House to get it done.

Liberals, though, could use the reconciliation process itself to their advantage. They could include all kinds of amendments to shape the deal more to their liking. Even after time for debate expires, if an amendment is ruled germane, it has to get a vote, often setting up a "vote-a-rama" of back-to-back roll calls that could last hours. This can become almost a filibuster-by-amendment if the minority is determined enough to affect the legislation.

That makes Conrad's potential gambit more difficult. It is clear, however, that he's keeping his options open. And while a White House-led bipartisan budget deal still seems remote, if one emerges, there's a mechanism to dismiss the objections of liberals in the process.

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