As it becomes increasingly clear that Senate Republicans are more interested in scuttling President Obama’s agenda for political gain than they are in actually negotiating on health care, the White House and Senate leadership are looking at a process known as “reconciliation,” which would allow some health care reforms to pass the Senate by a simple majority vote. Cable news, however, has raced to draw a false comparison between this well-established reconciliation process and a strongarm tactic known as “nuclear option” which progressives opposed in 2005.
As Media Matters reports, two CNN anchors described reconciliation as a “nuclear option” being invoked by Democrats. Fox News’ Bill Sammon claimed that “Democrats are headed for, not the public option but the nuclear option.” Sean Hannity claimed that Senate Democrats are “talking about a nuclear option if they can’t get their 60-vote filibuster number in the Senate,” and Fox commentator Dick Morris labeled reconciliation “the so-called nuclear option.” Watch this video compilation:
This comparison, however, merely proves that CNN and Fox do not understand how the Senate works.
The most important difference between budget reconciliation and the so-called nuclear option is that the reconciliation process was created by federal law, while the “nuclear option” was dreamed up by an article published in the right-wing Federalist Society’s official journal. Under the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, the Senate may pass a law bringing federal tax and spending levels in line with a previously enacted budget resolution by a simple majority vote. This process allows senators to bypass the filibuster when enacting health reform provisions that impact the federal budget. President Clinton used it to enact his budget in 1993, and President Bush used it to enact trillions of dollars of tax cuts for the rich in 2001 and 2003.
Conversely, the nuclear option was an unprecedented proposal to simply eliminate the filibuster altogether if 50 Senators agreed. Although there is a very strong constitutional argument that a bare majority of the Senate can eliminate the filibuster immediately after a new Senate is seated, nothing in federal law provides for the nuclear option.
The distinction here is very clear. Reconciliation is authorized by an Act of Congress; the nuclear option is a power play dreamed up by a right-wing policy shop. As former Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist said of reconciliation, “It’s legal, it’s ethical, you can do it.” Simply put, there’s nothing “nuclear” about progressives believing that they can pass health reform by a majority vote; that’s simply known as “democracy.”