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A Brief Reconciliation Primer

The health care debate is quickly going to focus on whether its passage entails some immoral act of partisan hardball or merely a common legislative procedure. Unfortunately, it seems that very few people understand the details of it well enough to form an opinion, and this includes reporters who cover it.

Senate Republicans collected quotes from 18 Senate Democrats expressing skepticism about using budget reconciliation to pass health care reform. The Hill reports skeptically on this claim, pointing out that many of the quotes are dated, and the Senators have since expressed openness to using reconciliation. But this response misses the deeper problem here: the Republicans are conflating two extremely different things.

Let me explain. Reconciliation is a legislative procedure for passing changes to the budget -- taxes and spending -- that only requires a majority in the Senate. Last year some Democrats pondered passing health care reform entirely through reconciliation. Critics pointed out that such a move could result in many of the crucial features of the bill being stricken by the Senate parliamentarian on grounds that they aren't budget changes. (Say, insurance regulations would probably not be able to pass through reconciliation.) Ultimately, Democrats decided to go through the regular order, and they passed a health care bill through the Senate with 60 votes.

Now that they've lost the ability to break a filibuster, Democrats plan to have the House pass the Senate bill, and then use reconciliation to enact changes to the Senate bill demanded by the House. These changes -- higher subsidy levels, different kinds of taxes to pay for them, nixing the Nebraska Medicaid deal -- mainly involve taxes and spending. In other words, they're exactly the kinds of policies that are well-suited for reconciliation.

It's not just The Hill that misses the distinction, but the whole political media. Here's Sunday's New York Times:

Many Democrats in Congress said they doubted that it was feasible to pass a major health care bill with a parliamentary tool called reconciliation, which is used to speed adoption of budget and tax legislation. Reconciliation requires only 51 votes for passage in the Senate, but entails procedural and political risks.

Again, using reconciliation to patch up the Senate bill is a totally different thing than using it to pass an entire health care bill. I can understand why Republicans would treat them as identical -- they're spinning for partisan purposes. Reporters covering this issue have no good excuse.