Reconciliation Points the Way to Bipartisanship


Ben Nelson launched a gambit on health care that really would have been welcome back in June or July:

Today, Nebraska’s Senator Ben Nelson issued an invitation to Republican colleagues in the Senate to work with him to avert efforts to pass health reform legislation using the truncated reconciliation process.

“If Republican colleagues are serious about fixing our health care system and want to avoid using the reconciliation process, then I will go to the negotiating table with them,” Senator Nelson said. “If Republican senators join me at the table, we can use bipartisanship for health reform rather than use reconciliation, which needs only 50 votes to approve legislation.

“All it takes is one Republican to come forward, put partisanship aside, and work on behalf of those that do not have or cannot afford health insurance,” Nelson added. “Working together, we can fight to ensure health reform relies on our private market system, rather than the government to reduce the cost of health care and deliver better care for millions of Americans.

Ezra Klein reports that David Axelrod doesn’t seem to have a concrete plan to secure Republican votes for Obama initiatives. But Nelson is pointing the way forward here—it’s reconciliation.

Reconciliation, a process through which many legislative ideas can be moved with only 50 votes—is not just a way to circumvent Republican opposition, it’s actually a way to secure Republican cooperation. That’s because it’s a threat to the the interests of the most conservative Democrats, the Nelsons & Bayhs & Lincolns of the Senate, and brings the prospect of passing legislation that’s substantially more left-wing than what could pass with an “all Democrats plus one or two Republicans” strategy. On the other hand, it means progressives would have to settle for bills that are somewhat more limited in scope than what can be achieved through the regular order. This puts centrist Democrats in a position where they have the opportunity to genuinely broker deals. By cooperating, moderate Republicans can ensure that legislative initiatives become less liberal in exchange for progressives getting to do bills that have wide scope and a bipartisan seal of approval.

Once upon a time it seemed like this was the plan for health care. The reconciliation instructions were drawn up, even though everyone preferred to avoid reconciliation. But far too many Senators started immediately saying not that reconciliation was their second choice, but that it was just off the table. That doesn’t work. It’s better to avoid reconciliation, but it’s vital to say that reconciliation, rather than capitulation, is the fallback option. That creates incentives to cooperate.