Letter to the Editor

Without bipartisan health bill, Nebraskans lose

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

This past Saturday evening I voted for the Senate to proceed to a full and open debate on health care reform with two goals in mind.

The first goal is that the Senate, now able to follow normal parliamentary procedures, will produce a bipartisan bill cutting the cost of health care for Nebraskans, and all Americans. The second goal is that by following normal procedures--allowing much debate, many amendments and even an opportunity to consider a complete alternative to the new bill offered by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid-- we have avoided for now bringing health care legislation up using the tactic known as budget reconciliation.

There are partisans on both sides who will try to undermine efforts toward the first goal. However, if we don't let the normal procedures prevail, it is likely reconciliation will prevail. Some people say reconciliation is off the table, citing comments from Senator Reid. But it will be right back on the table if we allow the normal Senate parliamentary procedures to break down.

Some who discount the possibility of reconciliation have used it to avoid a filibuster in the past. They were against filibusters before they were for them.

Interestingly, there have been times in past years where efforts to obstruct failed as the Senate leadership used reconciliation to win congressional approval of important legislation. Reconciliation helped pass a welfare reform bill in 1996, a 2001 bill cutting taxes by $1.3 trillion and another major tax cut bill in 2003. I was elected to the Senate in 2000, so I wasn't able to consider the welfare bill, but I did play a key role in passing the tax cut bills.

Earlier this year, though, I voted against the 2010 budget resolution, in part because it contained language allowing health care reform to be brought up under reconciliation. Reconciliation is an extraordinary tool designed to help Congress do something very difficult: adjust revenue and spending levels to reduce deficits. While the Reid health care bill reduces deficits, it does a whole lot more.

Reconciliation strictly limits content and debate and amendments to legislation. Debate is limited to 20 hours, the final bill cannot be filibustered and only a simple majority is needed for passage. Any hope of bipartisanship would vanish, so would the need to develop consensus within the Democratic caucus. Moderates would be sidelined, along with likely all of the Senate Republicans.

The result of the limits on debate and content could be a convoluted bill passed by only 50 Senators. That's not what the Senate is about. With thousands of Nebraska families facing ever-increasing health care costs, thousands more unable to even afford coverage and with hundreds of Nebraska businesses struggling to cover their employees -- it's too important we get health care reform right to encourage a move to reconciliation.

Reconciliation not only makes it harder to change or stop bad legislation, in this case it also makes it harder to pass good legislation. My vote Saturday evening supporting the cloture motion to proceed was to encourage a full debate with the hope it will develop a bipartisan bill that works for all Nebraskans.

That may not be possible using normal parliamentary procedures. I would vote against a cloture motion--needing 60 votes -- to move to approve the Reid bill today for a number of reasons, and will if that's what emerges from the upcoming debate. I also will vote no on a cloture motion -- also needing 60 votes -- to move to an up or down vote on a final House-Senate compromise health care bill if serious problems remain.

But efforts leading to reconciliation will likely mean more government-run health care policies win, while Nebraskans lose.

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