The debate over the budget has moved to the Senate floor. And, not surprisingly, a major source of contention is the possible use of reconciliation rules to pass climate change legislation, health care, or both.

For those who haven't followed this debate, reconciliation allows the Senate to pass measures with just a simple majority, since time and amendments are limited with no possibility for filibuster. Many Democrats favor this approach; a few oppose it, as (to my knowledge) do all Republicans.

The budget proposal under consideration in the Senate has no reconcliation instructions. But the version likely to pass the House will include reconciliation orders for health care (although not climate change). That means the option will be on the bargaining table when the two chambers meet in conference committee, to work out their differences.  

Just now, Republicans John Ensign (Nevada) and Judd Gregg (New Hampshire) were arguing that using reconciliation to pass reforms as far-reaching as climate change and health care would be unprecedented. In response, Democrat Barbara Boxer (California) noted that past Senates have used reconciliation to pass welfare reform as well as the sweeping tax cuts of the Reagan and Bush II eras.

I think Boxer is more right than wrong about historical precedent--those Republicans tax cuts had pretty far-reaching effects--although the analogy is not quite precise. But leave that aside. The best, and certainly correct, argument for using reconciliation is that it allows the Senate to operate on the principle of majority rule, as it should for most major pieces of legislation.

My colleague Jonathan Chait explained this well in our current issue, citing work by American Enterprise Institute scholar Norman Ornstein:

Over the last three decades, the filibuster, once a rare weapon used to express unusually strong objections, has dramatically expanded and turned into a routine, 60-vote supermajority requirement. During the same time period, the Senate has developed a new, anonymous one-person filibuster called a "hold." The clubby traditions of the Senate have allowed these new practices to expand unchallenged. "The always individual-oriented Senate," writes Ornstein, "has become even more indulgent of the demands of each of its 100 egotists."

The Senate poses a particular obstacle to Democrats. Its structure gives greater voice to residents of low-population states, who tilt more Republican than the country as a whole. If you assume that every senator represents half the population of that state, then the Republican caucus represents less than 38 percent of the public. In electoral terms, we think of that as a tiny, even fringe minority. It's less than the share of the electorate that voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964. But it supports enough senators to block the majority's will.

This brings me to what Boxer was doing wrong just now. In making her argument, she used the word "reconciliation" over and over again--at least a dozen time in two minutes, I think. Not once did I hear the word "majority" or "will of the people."

I realize this was a Senate floor debate, in which Boxer was specifically addressing her colleagues, these things are habit forming. If Democrats want to win this argument--and I certainly hope they do--they need to transform this dispute about arcane legislative rules into a fight for the fundamental principles of democracy.

--Jonathan Cohn