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.”
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.
Reconciliation is toxic to the party in power. It has often been a deadly option for legislators, leading to political self-destruction. With the current level of anger toward incumbency brewing throughout America and the Republicans' recent campaign promise to repeal any partisan health care legislation that is passed, perhaps the fallout from a bill passed by reconciliation will be an electoral death blow to Democrats in November.