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Daschle--not Backing Off Health Care Strategy

TalkingPointsMemo is reporting that Tom Daschle yesterday holstered one of the Democrats' most potent political weapons, the Senate's budget reconciliation process, in the fight to pass health care reform.

If true, it would be a major shift. The rules of reconciliation forbid filibusters, making it possible to pass legislation with just fifty votes. Democratic reform propopents, including not just Daschle but also Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, have for some time said they'd use reconciliation, if necessary, to enact health care reform. The TPM item suggests Daschle backed off that threat yesterday, when--in response to a quesiton from Senator Mike Enzi--he said he would urge Democrats not to use reconciliation.

I didn't interpret the exchange the same way. Daschle (like Baucus) has always said he'd strive to win bipartisan support reform--that the goal was to work with Republicans, if at all possible. The key is that he's never ruled out the use of reconciliation as a last resort--and, I thought,he didn't do that yesterday, either.

Daschle's statement yesterday was, in retrospect, a bit ambiguous. But transition officials have since reaffirmed to me, as they have to Ezra Klein, that reconciliation is on the table:

Senator Daschle delivered a strong message to the Senate HELP Committee that he wanted to work in a bi-partisan manner to reform health care--with the Senate and across the country. He did not rule out using reconciliation--reconciliation has been used to pass important pieces of legislation like SCHIP. But he did agree with Senator Enzi that the use of reconciliation, to discourage an open and inclusive and bi-partisan process, should be discouraged.

As I write in my recap of Daschle's testimony, I'm not particularly optimistic the bipartisan mood on display at yesterday's hearing will last.  But I understand the logic of making this effort now, if only for the sake of appearances.  That way, if the Democrats do resort to reconciliation, they can deflect criticism by saying, hey, we tried to do this collaboratively--and gave up only when the Republicans refused to play ball.  (In addition, it's always possible that the threat of reconciliation would help win over a few Republicans.) 

Whether this approach makes sense is, certainly, a reasonable subject for debate. Yesterday's testimony (like the carefully worded statement above) offers a sense of just how far the new administration will go to reach out to Republicans on this issue--and, most likely, others. But, just to be clear, I don't take yesterday's statement as a major shift in position.

--Jonathan Cohn