Obama and the 'Nuclear Option' in Congress

In the Cold War over health care reform, the Democrats could end up paying a high price for ruling by “reconciliation.”

Posted:
 
obama
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

We keep hearing that reconciliation is the "nuclear option" when it comes to health care reform. To Republicans, it is a partisan move that should not be contemplated at all because of  its potential to “blow up” our method of governing, particularly when it involves such sweeping social legislation.

Democrats have done a good job of reminding Americans that Republicans often used reconciliation during periods when a Republican majority sat in Congress. Therefore, we see that the option is not as toxic historically as Republicans have made it out to be. Depending on who is in office, reconciliation often becomes a "necessary evil" for the majority.

However, while our democracy will no doubt survive reconciliation, it is still a "radioactive" move with the potential for political fallout for Democrats. If anything, reconciliation worked to invigorate democracy by providing political ammunition that was used against the majority party in office and triggering sweeping changes in Congress in the following election cycle.

Even when Congress did not shift its axis of political balance, using this option still had political ramifications. For example, after weakening President Bill Clinton by defeating his efforts on health care reform, the Republicans still could not push Clinton out of the White House in 1996 after using reconciliation to pass the "work-fare" measure. This allowed Clinton to claim welfare reform and other legislative triumphs as his own despite Republican control of Congress.  In 2005, reconciliation had politically limiting effects. After the Bush tax cuts went through by way of reconciliation (the "Tax Increase Prevention and Reconciliation Act of 2005"), Republicans suffered successive blows at the ballot in 2006 and 2008.

 

The tea party movement, the mainstream media and savvy Republicans have already had a field day portraying Democrats as uncompromising, incapable of governing and unwilling to listen to the American people on priority issues—like jobs and unemployment. Any move that can be used to crystallize this image of Democrats will be the perfect campaign weapon to reverse the majorities we see in Congress.

Even if Democrat majorities are not completely reversed in either house this year, the changes could be enough that conservative Democrats and Republicans could begin working together to take a new legislative direction—perhaps one where the "nuclear option" is reconsidered to repeal any unpopular portions of this current health care proposal. "Pushing the button" for reconciliation would yield additional fallout for the players in Washington, including the health care reformer in chief.

Considering the amount of political standing President Obama has invested in this battle, any move to further drive those in the political middle away from supporting the White House will only make 2012 that much harder for the president regardless of whom the presidential candidate is from the GOP. Obama’s signature on this partisan legislation puts his fingerprints on "the nuclear button" of another reconciliation process by a desperate majority in Congress—a move that may convince the nation to reverse direction just a few years after voting for "hope and change."

The Root 100 People's Choice Awards  
Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM