Sunday, March 29, 2009 | 2 a.m.
So often the political behavior here is breathlessly described as outrageous and unbelievable — until power changes hands and the other side does the exact same thing.
That appears to be what is happening now as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his fellow congressional leaders toy with a politically lethal tool to pass President Barack Obama’s budget priorities.
Think of it as the nuclear option of the budget process: It brings victory, yes, but it leaves no hope of bipartisanship in its wake. Only scorched political terrain remains.
Republicans are beside themselves that Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi may employ this weaponry to pass the most difficult items in Obama’s agenda, namely, universal health care.
Unclear is whether Democrats really plan to take the step, known as budget reconciliation, or are merely using the threat to force Republicans — and perhaps moderate Democrats — to the bargaining table.
Stan Collender, a longtime federal budget expert who writes a weekly column for a Hill publication, said the Democrats’ threat “from a strategic view, it makes sense ... whether they use it or not is another question.”
This was never the way Washington was supposed to work.
In 1974, Bob Dove was assistant parliamentarian in the Senate when he and other staff members were called on to craft what became the Congressional Budget Act. They produced a document that included a fairly minor provision called budget reconciliation.
“It hardly got any attention,” said Dove, who now teaches at Georgetown University’s law school and other area universities.
The intent was to allow Congress to reconcile the budget bill swiftly.
But here’s the rub: In the Senate, the provision carries superhero-like power because legislation presented via reconciliation needs only a simple majority to pass, eliminating the ability of the minority party to block legislation by filibuster of as few as 40 of the 100 members.
President Ronald Reagan was among the first to employ the reconciliation provision in a big way. He did it so Congress would pass his first-term agenda in 1981.
President Bill Clinton persuaded Congress to use it in 1993.
And most recently President George W. Bush had Congress use it to pass his tax cuts in both 2001 and 2003 — that last year relying on Vice President Dick Cheney to cast the tiebreaking 51st vote.
That history is helpful now.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader from Kentucky, says using budget reconciliation would be one way to “steamroll the minority.”
“It wouldn’t surprise me ... if they tried to use any device they could to advance their agenda,” McConnell said.
Reid has given mixed signals, saying any talk of reconciliation is “just getting ahead of ourselves.” But a moment later Reid adds: “Hey, we’re taking nothing off the table.”
In many ways, Collender says, the fight is among Democrats. The House’s push for reconciliation is a way to pressure the Senate.
House Democrats get frustrated when bills they pass die in the Senate because the minority there blocks legislation. Plus, several of Reid’s own Democrats have bristled at using such a heavy-handed device.
Pelosi seems willing to push the issue. In defending reconciliation last week she said, “People on the Republican side didn’t have a problem with it ... when President Bush wanted to put forward his tax cuts for the wealthiest people in America.”
Dove, the former parliamentarian, watches from afar.
“My reaction, only having worked for the Senate for 35 years, is that reconciliation is a direct attack on the way the Senate operates,” he said.
“It does not leave a good taste in the mouth of the minority. And if it’s used this year, it won’t either.”