WASHINGTON — Only in the partisan food fight that is Congress these days could the term reconciliation mean "I win, and you lose."
As the House and Senate debated their $3.5 trillion budget outlines this week, the rhetoric over taxes, spending and congressional priorities was often overshadowed in the Capitol by talk of a little-known but powerful parliamentary tool that has absolutely nothing to do with getting along.
In the halls of Congress reconciliation means bringing federal policy in line (reconciling it) with the budget. In practical terms, it enables parties to ram legislation through the Senate with a simple majority, rather than the 60 votes usually needed to pass controversial bills.
Opinions on the subject depend on whether one is in the party that is doing the reconciling, in which case the tactic is often seen as a legitimate and necessary means of lawmaking, or in the party that is being steamrolled, in which case it's an outrage against democracy.
This week, Democrats in charge of the House budget included instructions for reconciliation to pass health care and education reform by late September, and reconciliation will likely be included in the final congressional budget resolution when House and Senate negotiators meet after the two-week Easter recess.
Senate Republicans are apoplectic at the prospect, and even some Senate Democrats have qualms, worrying they would appear heavy-handed and unwilling to compromise. Whether Democratic leaders use reconciliation or not, its prominence suggests that the vision of bipartisanship that President Barack Obama brought to Washington was probably just a mirage.
"It does fundamental damage to the constitutional structure and the balance of power, where the Senate is a place of deliberation on matters of complexity," said Judd Gregg, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee.
Under the rules of reconciliation, legislation that falls within the confines of the budget gets special treatment in the Senate: Debate is limited to just 20 hours. It cannot be amended easily, if at all. And, most significantly, it cannot be blocked by filibuster — the minority's biggest weapon, which Republicans employed to exact deep concessions on the economic stimulus package and threatened to use again.
Democrats are two seats shy of the 60 needed to break a Republican filibuster. But if they craft comprehensive health care reform and try to move it under reconciliation, they would need just 51 votes to prevail.
Many Democrats find the prospect dizzying. "This is the antidote to the Republican policy of blockade and filibuster," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. "We can't allow ourselves to be tied in knots."
Besides, they say, the Republicans used it against them several times when they ran Congress during the Bush administration, including to pass the president's tax cuts in 2001 and 2003.
In 2005, Senate Republicans used reconciliation to approve a measure allowing oil and gas exploration in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The drilling provision was later stripped in the House, but reconciliation allowed Republicans to break a 20-year stalemate with a 51-49 vote.
Back then, Gregg seemed to hold a different opinion of the tactic.
"Reconciliation is a rule of the Senate (that) has been used before for purposes exactly like this on numerous occasions," Gregg said on the floor in March 2005. "Is there something wrong with majority rules? I don't think so. ... The point, of course, is this: If you have 51 votes for your position, you win."
This week, Judd said the difference is scope: Reconciliation has never been employed for something as sweeping as reforming the nation's health care system.
"To change the fundamental structure of the health care system without any capacity to add amendments or to change the bill is a pretty frightening thought," Gregg said.
Some Democrats, meanwhile, decried the tactic as "irresponsible manipulation of the budget process" and "trickery" back in 2005, and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., complained about the Republicans using reconciliation to win the ANWR vote — though he acknowledged it fell within the rules.
Some Democrats still don't like reconciliation, including Budget Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he doubts the Senate will need it, predicting enough Republicans will join Democrats to craft a health care reform plan that meets Obama's goals of expanding access and cutting costs.
Asked if he thought reconciliation is a bad idea, he said, "I think what's a good idea is bipartisanship on health care."
Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., the chairman of the Banking Committee, agrees — but having it at hand might push the Republicans to cooperate. "Don't take it off the table," he said. "I'd like to have a 75- to 80-vote majority on the bill, but at the end of the day, I don't want a minority within a minority to determine the outcome."
Wes Allison can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 463-0577.