Forget Reconciliation — Why the Real Fight Is In the House

March 4, 2010

If the House passes the Christmas Eve version of the Senate health care reform bill, the game is up and the American people lose. If, on the other hand, the House rejects the original Senate bill, it’s all over.


Opponents of Obama’s so-called health care reform are understandably up in arms at the president’s embrace of reconciliation as a way to force changes to his bill through the Senate. –It feels as if Scott Brown’s election had never happened. Reconciliation, part of the budget process designed to raise or lower revenues or spending, was never designed as a way to change the rules to pass controversial policy changes that otherwise would fail for lack of 60 votes needed to invoke cloture. But as outrageous as reconciliation is, ultimately it’s a distraction, and free-market activists who focus on it may miss the real fight in the U.S. House of Representatives.


Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether or not the Senate passes changes to its health care bill via reconciliation. That’s because the reconciliation process cannot even begin until after the House passes the Senate bill exactly as it passed the Senate on Christmas Eve. That means it must pass with the abortion language already rejected by Rep. Bart Stupak and others still intact. It also must pass with the outrageous pork barrel spending deals cut for Nebraska, Louisiana, Connecticut, and others. In other words, the bill must pass the House with everything in it that the American people have already made clear they hate.


As a practical matter, the Senate has no reason to take another politically risky vote unless that House has already proven it has the votes to pass the core vehicle, the Christmas Eve version of the Senate bill. — At this point it’s far from clear that Nancy Pelosi can get the 216 votes she needs to get it passed. More importantly, as a procedural matter, the Senate almost certainly cannot even proceed to a reconciliation bill by making changes to the Christmas Eve bill if it hasn’t already been enacted into law. The Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), which creates the official cost estimates of the tax changes in federal legislation, has said it cannot and will not provide cost estimates for a reconciliation health care bill unless the underlying bill has already been passed by the House. Without those scores, it’s impossible to determine if the reconciliation bill meets the requirements of the budget process.


North Dakota Democrat Kent Conrad, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, put it pretty bluntly: “I don’t know of any way, I don’t know of any way where you can have a reconciliation bill pass before the bill that it is meant to reconcile passes. I don’t know how you would deal with the scoring. I don’t know how I could look you in the eye and say this package reduces the deficit. It’s kind of got the cart before the horse.”


So the House has to go first. And the House vote is all that matters. If the Senate bill passes the House, Obama will sign it and it will be the law of the land. Maybe the Senate will make some tweaks to it via reconciliation. Maybe they won’t. Ultimately it won’t matter, because either way vast new taxes will be imposed to support over 100 new regulatory entities that will give Washington the power to micromanage every aspect of our health care. Either way we’ll all be forced — under threat of incarceration — to buy expensive health insurance from favored private insurance companies, whether we want it or not. In other words, if the House passes the Christmas Eve Senate bill, the game is up and the American people lose. If, on the other hand, the House rejects the original Senate bill, it’s all over.


So as outrageous as the reconciliation maneuver is, it’s ultimately inconsequential. It’s a bright, shiny object, designed to distract opponents from the fight that really matters. That real fight is in the House, and will be over, in victory or defeat, before the Senate does or doesn’t use reconciliation.


In his latest health care speech on Wednesday President Obama said this fight over health care is ultimately about what kind of country we want to be. He’s exactly right. But unlike President Obama and his extreme left-wing allies, most Americans prefer the American system of free markets and individual responsibility to the false security of a cradle-to-grave, European-style welfare state. That’s what hangs in the balance on the biggest health care vote in decades, or maybe ever. And that vote will be in the House, not the Senate.


Phil Kerpen is vice president for policy at Americans for Prosperity. He can be reached on Twitter, Facebook, and through