It’s a testament to how arcane a procedure reconciliation is that we haven’t heard this before. Remember, if Obama and Reid go nuclear in the Senate, that’s not the end of the story: The GOP can still try to block the progress of the bill, either by challenging the individual provisions on parliamentary grounds — in theory, only parts that are related to the budget can be passed via reconciliation — or by proposing an endless numbers of amendments to stop the process in its tracks. Keith Hennessey wrote about the latter strategy this morning:
Senate floor debate on a reconciliation bill is limited to 20 hours. There is no limit on amendments that can be offered. This means that, after two full days of debate and amendments, twenty hours will have expired. Any amendments which are queued up (or are then offered) are then voted on, in sequence, with no debate (in theory)…
A well-disciplined Senate majority party can defeat every amendment with a simple majority by simply voting to table (kill) each amendment. This has a slightly different procedural and political feel than defeating the amendment but the same practical effect. Still, the minority can often use the vote-a-rama to force members of the majority party to take politically tough votes. I would expect vulnerable Senate Democrats to be looking to vote with Republicans on some of these votes to avoid political risks for their campaign. This should not be too big of a challenge for Leader Reid, since he needs to hold only 50 of 59 for each tabling vote. He can allow vulnerable individual Democrats to take a walk on particularly difficult amendments.
The novel twist this time would be the possibility of a Senate Republican filibuster by amendment during the vote-a-rama. Even a single Republican could, in theory, offer an infinite sequence of amendments to each word of the bill, never allowing Leader Reid to get to final passage.
The burning question: Is there some way Reid can shut them down? According to Norman Ornstein of AEI, yes. They could … ask Joe Biden to do it:
“The vice president can rule that amendments are dilatory,” Norm Ornstein, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and one of the foremost experts on congressional process, told the Huffington Post. “That they are not serious attempts to amend the bill but are designed without substance to obstruct. He can rule them out of order and he can do that on bloc.”
“There are time limits,” Ornstein added. “It is not that they can keep doing it over and over again.”
As Ornstein added, there are potential downsides to the vice president wielding any of these two institutional powers. For starters, it further politicizes a process that is already being criticized as overly political. Moreover, it could spur serious discussion of whether the Obama administration is engaged in an institutional power grab and/or upheaval of Congress.
The veep presides over the Senate so the veep has the final say; even the Senate parliamentarian, the de facto authority on whether any given provision of the bill qualifies as “budgetary” or not, merely advises Biden on his final ruling. If they’re willing to game the process and abuse reconciliation to pass the bill, why wouldn’t Slow Joe be willing to overrule the parliamentarian and let them pass whichever provisions they want? It’s a microcosm of the entire ObamaCare process thus far: The public’s already disgusted with the substance and procedure of what’s going on, so why shouldn’t the Dems let them feel a tiny bit more disgusted in order en route to getting this thing passed? It’s kamikaze time, remember?
Also via HuffPo, here’s 90 seconds of former parliamentarian Robert Dove assuring MSNBC this morning that, yes indeed, Biden is the ultimate referee here. What could go wrong?