Despite Majority Leader Harry Reid’s “hmmm…reconciliation…never heard of it!” performance at yesterday’s healthcare summit, it looks like reconciliation might still be on the table.  And Democrats are out in force repeating the same old talking points: “Reconciliation has been used in the past…and by republicans, so what’s the big deal?” 

Well, it is a big deal and former republican Majority Leader Bill Frist provides an excellent history lesson in yesterday’s Wall Street Journalon the use (both by republicans and democrats) of this legislative procedure and why it would actually be historic to use reconciliation on the healthcare bill as this legislative tool has never been used to pass major legislation.  

The first use of this special procedure was in the fall of 1980, as the Democratic majority in Congress moved to reduce entitlement programs in response to candidate Ronald Reagan’s focus on the growing deficit. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, reconciliation was used to reduce deficit projections and to enact budget enforcement mechanisms. In early 2001, with projected surpluses well into the future, it was used to return a portion of that surplus to the public by changing tax rates.  

Senators of both parties have assiduously avoided using budget reconciliation as a mechanism to pass expansive social legislation that lacks bipartisan support. In 1993, Democratic leaders-including the dean of Senate procedure and an author of the original Budget Act, Robert C. Byrd- appropriately prevailed on the Clinton administration not to use reconciliation to adopt its health-care agenda. It was used to pass welfare reform in 1996, an entitlement program, but the changes had substantial bipartisan support. 

In 2003, while I was serving as majority leader, Republicans used the reconciliation process to enact tax cuts. I was approached by members of my own caucus to use reconciliation to extend prescription drug coverage to millions of Medicare recipients. I resisted. The Congress considered the legislation under regular order, and the Medicare Modernization Act passed through the normal legislative procedure in 2003. 

The same concerns I expressed about using this procedure to fast-track prescription drug expansions with a simple majority vote were similarly expressed by Majority Leader Reid, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, and others last year when they chose not to use the procedure to enact their health-care legislation. Over the past several months, an additional 15 Democratic senators have expressed opposition to using this tool.