Health Care Reform: Democrats Debate the 'Nuclear Option', Republicans Cry Foul

Majority Leader Reid says reconciliation has been used 21 times since 1981.

ByABC News
February 24, 2010, 3:56 PM

WASHINGTON, Feb. 26, 2010— -- If Thursday's summit at the White House doesn't bring lawmakers closer to a compromise on health care reform, Democrats may turn to a little-used legislative process known as "reconciliation" to push their plans forward.

Reconciliation -- also called the "nuclear option" these days by Republicans -- is a legislative procedure for passing budget-specific policy without the possibility of filibusters, which require 60 Senate votes to overcome.

Instead, reconciliation allows for a simple majority vote on bills, which would effectively allow Senate Democrats to pass through health care reform legislation over the unanimous opposition of the GOP.

Established in 1974, reconciliation's original purpose was to allow Congress to make taxing and spending adjustments in order to close gaps in previously approved budgets. In 1985, lawmakers tried to eliminate loopholes in the legislation by passing the Byrd rule, which prohibits the use of reconciliation on any legislation that does not produce a change in expenditures or revenues.

The Byrd rule combined with numerous other restrictions and procedural hurdles limiting the use of reconciliation has limited Congress's use of the process.

But if Senate Democrats can tie their health care plans to the budget, even congressional Republicans have admitted they might not be able to stop the use of reconciliation this time.

But they are not happy.

"[Reconciliation] was never designed for a large, comprehensive piece of legislation such as health care, as you all know," Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., charged this week. "It's a budget exercise."

Other Republicans, such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, have been blunter, calling the Democrats' potential use of reconciliation "cheating" and "breaking the rules."

While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid continues to respond with a definitive "no" when asked whether reconciliation is the only way left for Democrats to get health care through Congress, he's also been quick to lay the groundwork for its future justification.

"I've been told that my Republican friends are lamenting reconciliation, but I would recommend for them to go back and look at history," Reid said earlier this week. "Since 1981, reconciliation has been used 21 times. The vast majority of those reconciliation efforts have been by Republicans. So ... nothing's off the table."