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The Speaker’s Lobby: A Knife at a Gunfight

knife_to_gun_fight.jpegBy: Chad Pergram, FOX News, 11 November 2015

Who brings a knife to a gunfight? 

The answer of course is someone lacking a gun, outmatched and reduced to fending for themselves, wielding only a blade. 

Such is the case with Congressional Republicans as they try to repeal parts of Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood. And seemingly, Republicans are only armed with a knife. They need a gun. But the knife is all they’ve got.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) pitched his members at the weekly GOP luncheon Tuesday on the use of a special parliamentary gambit to undo some portions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and strike federal dollars for Planned Parenthood. The parliamentary maneuver is called “budget reconciliation.” The reconciliation strategy can sidestep filibusters and curb amendment options for senators – the two most-fundamental tenets of Senate operations. 

Budget reconciliation appeals to Senate Republicans because they’ve yet to conduct an actual, concrete vote on repealing the ACA. Democrats held the Senate majority since final passage of Obamacare in 2010. As a result, they could block such a vote from coming to the floor. Moreover, Democrats continue to barricade the Senate from voting on an Obamacare repeal – even though Democrats now operate in the minority. That’s because of filibusters. It takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster – usually at two distinct parliamentary mileposts. Republicans now control 54 seats in the Senate. So the math to hinder an Obamacare repeal still favors the Democrats. 

But that’s the beauty of budget reconciliation. If the House and Senate approve

 a budget each year, lawmakers get one shot at crafting a reconciliation package. Think of the budget as a motorcycle and reconciliation as the sidecar. Lawmakers can then take the sidecar and install various legislative priorities which have trouble vaulting the 60 vote threshold. Time is limited for debate under reconciliation. And most importantly, it only takes a simple majority (presumably 51 ayes) to approve the reconciliation measure. 

With Republicans running both the House and Senate this year for the first time since 2006, the GOP leadership aimed to engineer a reconciliation measure to purge as much of Obamacare as possible. A recent addition was a plan to defund Planned Parenthood. 

The real power of budget reconciliation lies in the Senate. But, Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution dictates that “revenue” related matters must originate in the House of Representatives. So the House teed-up a reconciliation plan late last month, dismantling parts of the ACA and defunding Planned Parenthood. The House approved the reconciliation package 240-189. 

It stripped the mandate which required that all Americans hold health insurance. It also gutted the decree that employers of a certain size provide health coverage for their employees. Also slashed was a tax on medical devices. 

If you abhor Obamacare and Planned Parenthood, this sounds great, right? 

That was until Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Mike Lee (R-UT) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) published a joint statement. They argued that the reconciliation plan “simply isn’t good enough.” The trio asserts that they promised voters a “full repeal” of Obamacare and as a result, this plan falls short. 

Fifty-four minus three equals 51. Okay. So the reconciliation plan only needs 51 votes to pass the Senate. But other senators may have reservations, too. Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) all struggle with defunding Planned Parenthood. 

Republicans could potentially pick up a vote or two from moderate Democratic senators like Sens. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) or Joe Manchin (D-WV). But either way, the margin for passage is razor-thin in the Senate. 

Of course, the decision for senators to vote yea or nay on reconciliation hinges on what’s ultimately in the reconciliation plan. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) declared he’d prefer his colleagues just approve the House package. Conservatives want more. 

This brings us to a possible Senate landmine known as the “Byrd Rule,” the namesake of the legendary, late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV). The Byrd Rule imposes a multi-part test to reconciliation measures administered by Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough. This process is known on Capitol Hill as the “Byrd Bath.”  For instance, the Byrd Rule prohibits “extraneous” legislative provisions. It also bans changes in revenues and must not compound the deficit. Legislative items purged from the reconciliation package are referred to as “Byrd Droppings.” 

Leave it to the Senate to orchestrate cornpone, parliamentary humor…. 

Potentially contributing to the deficit is the inherent issue with stripping taxes imposed by Obamacare. Those taxes were imposed to diminish the deficit. Don’t forget that Democrats deployed a budget reconciliation package in 2010 to approve the final version of the ACA. Therefore, the bill ultimately trimmed spending – albeit through taxes. Vanquish those taxes and suddenly the reconciliation plan could add to the deficit, inconsistent with the Byrd Rule. But when the House authored its reconciliation plan, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found the measure saved $79 billion over a decade. 

MacDonough ruled that as written, some of the House’s reconciliation provisions aren’t consistent with the Byrd Rule. Out are taxes on so-called “Cadillac” health insurance plans and the medical device tax. Also yanked are requirements that people buy insurance and the mandate that many employers must provide coverage for their workers. 

But the effort to defund Planned Parenthood survived. 

There’s always a way to get around these prohibitions. That’s by “voting to waive the Budget Act” which initiated the reconciliation process in 1974. However, that’s a high bar. Successfully waiving the Budget Act entails 60 yeas. 

This is why Republican leaders are prepping an amendment to alter the House’s reconciliation measure (keep in mind the Byrd Rule doesn’t apply in the House). The Senate GOP leadership brass aims to tweak the reconciliation plan so it comports with the Byrd Rule – yet still preserves the major lacerations to Obamacare. 

But remember, budget reconciliation can’t filet all of Obamacare – because Democrats didn’t use reconciliation to approve the entire bill in 2010. So no matter how successful Republicans are with reconciliation, they can only attempt to strike those sections dealing with taxes, revenue and the deficit. Hence the reservations from Messrs. Cruz, Lee and Rubio. If the Senate approves something different from the House, the plan must return to that chamber. 

And here’s the rub: even if the House and Senate ultimately approve a unified reconciliation package which takes out a chunk of Obamacare and defunds Planned Parenthood, it’s doubtful President Obama will sign it 

Republicans can only chop into Obamacare so deep with this ploy. Mr. Obama won’t budge from his positions. But Senate Republicans would at least get something they’ve never had before: a straight, up/down vote on repealing key components of the ACA and cutting off Planned Parenthood.

It’s all Republicans can do right now. And that’s why they appear to be armed only with a knife in a gunfight.

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