Saturday, April 25, 2009

From the Department of Self-Promotion...

For those interested, I have an essay up at on inequality and why Republicans should care about it.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Reconciliation Conference?

Via The Hill, here are the members of the House-Senate budget conference, which will decide whether to put in place reconciliation instructions for health-care:
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.)
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.)
Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.)
House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.)
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.)
Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.)
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)
Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.)
Conrad is an opponent of using reconciliation, but he's feeling a lot of heat from the Democrats in the House and the White House. Certain members of the Senate leadership are now strongly pressing for reconciliation as well:
Conrad told reporters that he doesn't want to use reconciliation rules to pass healthcare reform but that he is feeling pressure to include the option in the budget resolution from House members and the Obama administration.

There are "three prongs that are involved in any budget discussion -- Senate, House and the White House," Conrad said. "And the White House and the House are insisting on [reconciliation]."

Asked if it was impossible to resist them, Conrad said, "We'll see."

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also called for reconciliation rules for healthcare on Thursday, the first time he has done so publicly.

When asked by the New York Times whether reconciliation instructions would be included, Reid replied, "I hope so, but it's up to the conferees."
The use of reconciliation would allow health-care reform to avoid the possibility of a filibuster so that it would only need a bare majority to pass. Back in the day (meaning 2005, when Democrats were out of power in the Senate), Sen. Murray issued a ringing defense of the filibuster:

We had an election this past year, and it's true that Republicans ended up with the majority in this body. But that does not mean that half the country lost its voice. That does not mean that tens of millions of Americans have no say in our democracy...Mr. President, in reality, this [the proposed "nuclear option" to end filibusters for judicial appointments] isn’t about judges. This isn't about a Senate procedural change. This is, plain and simply, a power grab and an effort to dismantle the system of checks and balances our Founding Fathers created.

Without that system, the U.S. Senate would become a rubber stamp for the president.

Will she stand by that principle now?

It might already be too late, but those who would defend the filibuster for health-care reform and ensure that such reform, if passed, requires a broader majority might want to raise their voices now and contact their representatives/House-Senate conferees (especially Conrad, Murray, and maybe Boyd). Certainly, the Democratic conferees are feeling a lot of pressure to use reconciliation in order to force health-care reform, and the White House is pushing for swift action (possibly as early as Monday for a budget package and Tuesday/Wednesday for votes on it).

(For more 2005 Democratic defenses of the filibuster, see here.)

UPDATE: Well, it looks as though a deal for reconciliation has been reached, according to Jonathan Cohn:

The final budget resolution will include a "reconciliation instruction" for health care. That means the Democrats can pass health care reform with just fifty votes, instead of the sixty it takes to break a filibuster...

The reonciliation instruction specifies a date. That date, according to one congressional staffer, is October 15. (The original House reconciliation instruction had a late September deadline.)

In other words, the House and Senate each have until that day to pass health care legislation.

If they haven't, then both houses will consider health care under the reconciliation process, which is relevant primarily for the way it affects the Senate. There will be a limit on the time of debate. Republicans won't be able to filibuster it.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Colorado Change?

April 2009 is probably too early to be reading too much into polls for an election in November 2010, but, that caveat aside, here are some numbers from a Public Policy Polling poll that might be give the GOP some (even if very small) hope:
Three months into his appointment as a Senator, Michael Bennet [D] isn’t making a strong positive impression on Colorado voters.
41% say they disapprove of his job performance so far, with 34% approving. 25% don’t have an opinion one way or the other. He is meeting with approval from 59% of Democrats but only 11% of Republicans, and his overall reviews from independents are negative as well, with 32% approving but 43% disapproving.
Bennet's numbers suggest that there could be some opening for a Republican pickup here, a sorely needed commodity for the GOP at the moment. However, Bennet leads a number of his possible Republican challengers in this poll; beating Bennet 43-42 in this poll, former Congressman Bob Beauprez is the only Republican candidate who leads Bennet. But Bennet's re-election numbers in these hypothetical head-to-heads linger in the low 40's and high 30's, so it certainly seems as though Colorado voters are open to voting for somebody else.

Talent recruitment could be incredibly important in a race like this one. If the GOP runs a strong candidate, it looks like it would have a real chance of taking this seat back (Ben Nighthorse Campell, a Democrat-turned-Republican, held this seat before Ken Salazar won it in 2004). Polls continuing to show Bennet as vulnerable would probably encourage challengers to enter the race. With tough poll numbers for some Republican incumbents looming overhead, the GOP and John Cornyn, who's heading the National Republican Senatorial Committee, might find a super-thin ray of hope in Colorado.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Reconciliation Coming?

Word on some of the lefty and newsy blogs is that budget "reconciliation" could be a real possibility for the Senate on health-care. This "reconciliation" process would prevent anyone from filibustering the health funding provisions. Jonathan Cohn at The New Republic writes:

Some well-placed sources on Capitol Hill* are saying it's likely that the final budget resolution will include "reconciliation instructions" for health care, effectively making it impossible for Republicans to filibuster reform...

...And while the outcome of those negotiations isn't certain--even some Democratic senators have spoken out against using reconciliation--it appears likely that the House will get its way. "I think reconciliation survives," says one senior House staffer, although the adviser noted it would probably take some pressure from the White House.

A senior Senate staffer agreed with that assessment. And, curiously, it's a staffer who just a week ago told me the outcome was very much in doubt.

I'm not yet sure what changed in the last few days. Nor can I be certain the confidence is well-placed. Another senior Senate staffer was more cautious, suggesting the inclusion of reconciliation is hardly a done deal.

One thing to keep in mind: Even if reconciliation is part of the final budget agreement, that doesn't mean Congress will necessarily use that option. The instructions will might stipulate that reconciliation only comes into play if, by September, the Congress has not yet passed a bill. That gives reformers several months to work out a bipartisan compromise, which is what most of the key players--including the Obama administration--have said they prefer.

Marc Ambinder at the Atlantic has heard something similar:

This column can say with good confidence that a betting man would wager heavily on the Senate including reconciliation for health care and education funding in the final budget agreement.... cap-n-trade...not so much.

For more "progressive" strategizing, see Ezra Klein's discussion of reconciliation options.

Will the sentiments of Democrats in 2005 prevail? Would Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) call this move "a
power grab and an effort to dismantle the system of checks and balances our Founding Fathers created"?

Speaking of health-care reform, check out this passage from Reihan Salam's interesting piece in Forbes (emphasis added):

Earlier this month, The New Republic Web site hosted a thoughtful and informed discussion of the Massachusetts health reform that has covered 85% of the state's previously uninsured residents. One of the participants, MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, was unusually frank. An architect of the reform, Gruber acknowledged that the costs have skyrocketed as coverage has increased--but Gruber sees this as part of its "genius."

"For decades," Gruber writes, "efforts to move towards universal coverage have always floundered on the shoals of cost control." But once universal coverage was achieved, or almost achieved, pressure groups rallied behind cost control efforts in order to preserve the gains for the uninsured.

As a political strategy, this is very clever indeed. It does, however, raise a number of pressing questions. What exactly constitutes an effective cost control effort? Assuming cost control efforts only go so far, will voters accept sharp tax increases? By deferring these questions, we make coverage expansion look very attractive--just as George W. Bush made his tax cuts look very attractive by deferring the question of how we'd pay for them in the years to come.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Then and Now

Even as some Democrats are now expressing their possible openness to using the budget reconciliation process to bypass a filibuster on health-care reform, a number of them were very critical of the so-called "nuclear option" of 2005, which would have ended the use of filibusters for judicial confirmations.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), a member of the Senate Budget Committee and a possible member of this year's House-Senate budget conference, now says that "everything's on the table." Sen. Murray came out strongly against the "nuclear option" in 2005. Back then, she warned that the destruction of the filibuster would weaken the institutional power of the Senate and betray some of the Senate's key aims, especially the protection of minority rights:

But what's so concerning about this recent rhetorical assault is that it's being backed by action – action that has nothing to do with judges and everything to do with increasing Republican power at the expense of the Constitution.

Republicans are trying to increase their power by ignoring rules dating to our country's founding. They want to push through radical judicial nominees who will serve a lifetime on the bench by eliminating a two-hundred-year-old American rule allowing each of us in the Senate to speak on behalf our constituents and fight for the ideals we hold dear.

We had an election this past year, and it's true that Republicans ended up with the majority in this body. But that does not mean that half the country lost its voice. That does not mean that tens of millions of Americans have no say in our democracy...Mr. President, in reality, this isn’t about judges. This isn't about a Senate procedural change. This is, plain and simply, a power grab and an effort to dismantle the system of checks and balances our Founding Fathers created.

Without that system, the U.S. Senate would become a rubber stamp for the president.

It would allow whichever political party is in power – Republican or Democratic - to have all the say over our nation’s courts. I will not stand for that.

This is a basic argument about the future of the Senate and how we will conduct our business. I believe in giving the people a voice, in standing up for those who sent me here, and in protecting the rights of minorities everywhere.

One of the first things every child is taught about the American government is the separation of the three braches. This separation, and the checks and balances that come with it, are fundamental to the greatest system of government ever created. This system is worth protecting, and that's exactly what I and so many of my colleagues intend to do...

Mr. President, recent comments by advocates on the other side, and even by some elected officials, have left me worried about the future of the independent judiciary. It seems many in this country are intent on running roughshod over the Constitution, bent on misusing their power to destroy fundamental principles of democracy.

That's not how America works. It is not what our founding fathers intended. In our democracy, no single person and no single political party may impose extreme views on the nation. The Constitutional system of checks and balances was set up for a reason. It has worked for two centuries. There is no reason to destroy this fundamental principle now.

Sen. Ron Wyden (OR) seems to be on the fence about whether he'd vote to use the reconciliation process on health-care, though he says he's hoping that process won't have to be used. In the past, Sen. Wyden has, as is his right, filibustered about oil prices and threatened to filibuster a new FISA authorization. Sen. Wyden used the filibuster as a way of fighting for his position.

Perhaps some of the most striking words in defense of the filibuster and Senate privileges have come from Sen. Russ Feingold, another member of the Budget Committee. In 2005, Feingold declared:

But the Constitution did not set up the Senate to be a majoritarian body. And that is what why renaming the nuclear option as "the constitutional option" is so wrong. The Constitution allows citizens from smaller states who could be easily outvoted in a majoritarian legislature, like the House, to have the same power in the Senate as citizens of larger states. This is not a minor provision, either. The founders clearly didn't think so, because they made it the only provision in the Constitution that cannot be amended. They designed the Senate to be an important bulwark against majoritarian pressures.

And the Senate rules from the very beginning have granted protections for the minority. There was no cloture rule at all until this century and the rule didn't cover nominations until 1949. While the cloture rule has changed over time, sometimes offering more protection to the minority and sometimes less, those rule changes have always been accomplished in accordance with the Senate rules. Until now. Until the demand for power trumped principle.

The Framers intended the Senate to act as a check on the whims of the majority, not to facilitate them. I will not pretend that the Senate has always been on the right side of history. At times, most notably during the great civil rights debates of the 1950s and 60s, Senators have used the powers given them to block vital, majority-supported legislation. But, notwithstanding those dark moments, the Senate has also served throughout the history of this republic as a place where individuals with different beliefs and goals are forced to come together to work for the common good. By empowering the minority, the Framers created a body that that has served this country well.

To continue down the road we are now on will be to irretrievably change the very character of the Senate, and irretrievably weaken the institution. Without the unique feature of extended debate, the Senate will be much less able to stand up to the President or to cool the passions of the explicitly majoritarian House. I know that my colleagues see themselves as guardians of this remarkable institution, as I do. When we leave the Senate -- and, some day, somehow or another, all of us will -- it is our responsibility to ensure that we do not leave this institution weakened. As Senators, we tend to see ourselves as pretty important, but none of us -- and certainly no judicial nomination -- is more important than the United States Senate.

Many Democrats---including Sen. Robert Byrd (WV), Sen. Tom Carper (DE), Budget chair Sen. Kent Conrad (ND), and Sen. Max Baucus (MT)---have expressed grave reservations about the use of the budget reconciliation process to force major policy reforms on the nation. Those Democrats who are wavering may do well to look at the words of their colleagues from four years ago and ask if their concerns about minority protections, Senatorial independence, and public consensus are any less relevant or true now (even if you don't agree with the filibustering of nominees---as opposed to laws---on grounds of principle).