White House may seek to bypass filibuster rule in Senate

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 17, 2009 

WASHINGTON — A top White House official threatened Tuesday to use a congressional rule to force some controversial proposals through the Senate by eliminating the Republicans' power to block legislation.

Peter Orszag, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, said the Obama administration would prefer not to use the budget "reconciliation" process that allows measures to pass the Senate on simple majority votes.

Orszag said he wouldn't rule it out, however. The legislative tactic is being considered to push through Obama's global warming and health care programs, and perhaps his proposals to raise taxes on the wealthy.

"We'd like to avoid it if possible," Orszag told reporters at a luncheon in Washington. "But we're not taking it off the table."

Members of Congress are bracing for a political donnybrook should the Democrats use the reconciliation process to sidestep the Republicans and their power of the filibuster in the Senate. Under normal Senate rules, it requires 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to shut off debate and force a final vote. Democrats currently have 58 Senate votes. Under reconciliation, 51 votes can force anything through.

There is plenty of historical precedent of using it by both parties, including Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, who used it force through big tax cuts.

"Pretty much every major piece of budget legislation going back to April 1981, April '82, April 1990, April 1993, the 1990 act, the 2001 tax legislation, they were all done through reconciliation. Yet somehow this is being presented as an unusual thing," Orszag said.

"The historical norm as opposed to the exception is for a major piece of budget legislation to move through reconciliation."

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the senior Republican on the tax-writing Finance Committee, said: "I'd have to say the possibility is very great" that the Democrats will use a coming budget resolution vote to signal their intention to use the reconciliation process later in the year.

If the Democrats proceed that way, it could be a genuine move toward using reconciliation later, or it could be merely a threat to force Republicans to the bargaining table to ensure that they have any voice in drafting legislation.

Orszag said that President Barack Obama is aware of the objections from Republicans that the reconciliation would cut them out of the loop on major legislation. He said the administration would prefer to get "major legislation without it."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was discussing the option with top Democrats Tuesday, apparently including White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, but declined to elaborate. "This is a long process," he said.

Rep. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, warned Orszag last week that Republicans won't cooperate if Democrats try to push a massive "cap and trade" carbon emissions program through the Senate using reconciliation.

" . . . (W)e would be concerned that if we step into this exercise, we will be blindsided with reconciliation exercises and there's no point in stepping into this exercise if we're going to be shut down in our ability to influence it."

Finally, Gregg, who last month withdrew his nomination to become commerce secretary, turned to Orszag and said "I think that's a concern, not that you really care."

(David Lightman contributed to this article.)

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