Earlier today, The Plum Line’s Greg Sargent reported that “[t]he GOP Senate leadership has privately settled on a strategy to derail health reform if Dems try to pass the Senate bill with a fix through reconciliation.” Republicans are promising to “[u]nleash an endless stream of amendments designed to stall for time and to force Dems to take untenable votes.” “There is no way to limit the number of amendments that are voted on. You can’t close debate. Democrats will have to vote on every politically perilous amendment that you can possibly think of,” the aid said.
But at least one former Senate parliamentarian is calling the strategy “patently absurd.” According to Robert Dove, who served as Senate parliamentarian until 2001, “In the Senate, the motion to go to that [reconciliation] bill is not debatable, and the bill itself is only debatable for 20 hours. All amendments must be germane.” “If there are differences between the two houses in their reconciliation bills, then you would either work out those differences through a conference, or through amendments as they bounce back and forth,” Dove told Lester Feder, who has been covering health care policy for The Nation and the O’Neill institute’s health law blog.
Dove also revealed that Vice President Joe Biden, not the Senate parliamentarian, is “the ultimate decider” of “what can stay in under the rules”:
But no vice president has tried to play that role in reconciliation. We haven’t had vice presidents that have tried to play important procedural roles for a very long time. The last one was Nelson Rockefeller, in 1975, and before him Hubert Humphrey, in the 1960’s. But no vice president has ever tried to play a role in reconciliation. Basically, since Walter Mondale was vice president, they have kind of been co-opted by the president and given an office down in the West Wing. Their interest in playing Senate politics has become attenuated. That has left the Senate parliamentarian in an extremely powerful position.
Dove stressed that “reconciliation was never designed for something like health care” and pointed out that “It’s designed for deficit reduction, and therefore everything in a reconciliation bill must contribute to deficit reduction.” Of course, in 2001, Republicans broke from tradition and used the reconciliation process to pass President Bush’s budget busting tax cuts for the rich. As a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, reconciliation has been used to pass major pieces of legislation in the past and, “[s]ince rising health costs are the single largest reason for projected long-run deficits, it is appropriate that health reform be considered through the reconciliation process.”