Dirty Harry's Little Secret

Obamacare would face challenges from within Democratic Senate

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April 2, 2012

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) is refusing to bring a budget resolution to the floor in order to protect Senate Democrats from having to cast a series of difficult election-year votes on amendments to the unpopular health care bill.

More than 1,000 days have passed since Senate Democrats last introduced a budget resolution, something Republicans have repeatedly criticized.

"Why is [Reid] prepared to take the grief of not proposing a budget?" asked Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee and one of Reid’s most outspoken critics. "Because the problems of not having one are worse than the grief he would take on health care, spending, taxes, if we ever had to vote on them."

Other leading Republicans agree.

"Leader Reid has made it pretty clear he’s not going to bring up a budget because he doesn’t want his incumbents running for reelection to cast hard votes," Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas) told the Washington Free Beacon. "My understanding is that’s why we got elected."

"The Senate Budget Committee should be doing something," Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.) said. "The question is: why won’t they? We would have to take tough votes, and it’s an election year."

The health care law, Sessions notes, would be a central focus of the debate that would ensue if Reid allowed a budget resolution to be brought to the Senate floor.

Pursuing a budget resolution would trigger an open amendment process—often called a "vote-a-rama"—comprising 50 hours of debate and dozens of votes on individual amendments offered by Senators.

That would allow Republicans to force simple majority votes, not subject to the standard 60-vote requirement, on individual aspects of the health care law as well as a measure to partially defund the new federal apparatus it created.

That would put Obamacare in serious jeopardy. The House of Representatives has already repealed the unpopular bill, and the Supreme Court may do the same to Obamacare’s key components.

"With the Supreme Court decision at hand, Obamacare is back in the news again, and it’s still unpopular," one GOP Senate aide told the Free Beacon. "How many Democrats in swing states want to run, essentially, on voting multiple times to support it?"

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, agreed a budget debate would put Senate Democrats—particularly the 16 facing reelection this year—in a tough spot.

"Democrats needed a fresh presidential mandate and 60 Democratic senators to get [health care reform] passed," he wrote in an email. "They now have a stale mandate interrupted by the 2010 Tea Party midterm, and just 53 senators. That's all she wrote. No way under heaven [the law] or anything like it could be passed again."

Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.), who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told the Free Beacon her support for the law remained strong. However, asked if that feeling was shared among her colleagues, she replied: "I don’t know, I haven’t talked to anyone."

It is true that no Senate Democrats, and only three House Democrats, supported the GOP effort to fully repeal the law last year.

Individual provisions of the law, however, have faired worse.

Last year, both houses of Congress successfully repealed an unpopular tax requirement in the new law, with wide bipartisan support.

Additionally, the Republican House has successfully repealed both the Community Living Assistance Services and Support Program (CLASS Act) and the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB)—two highly controversial provisions of the new law—with considerable support from Democrats.

Twenty-eight Democrats voted to repeal the CLASS Act, which established a long-term care insurance program and was effectively abandoned by the Obama administration after it was deemed financially unsustainable.

Republicans, along with some Democrats, had long been skeptical of the CLASS Act and the questionable scoring that allowed proponents to claim that the program reduced the deficit.

Repeal of the IPAB—a soon-to-be-established board of 15 political appointees who will be given sweeping authority to cut Medicare costs—won the support of seven Democrats, though at one point the repeal measure had as many as 20 Democratic co-sponsors.

Medicare’s chief actuary has testified that he is "less confident" in the IPAB’s ability to control costs compared with the "premium support" model championed by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.).

Senate Republicans have introduced legislation to repeal both the CLASS Act and the IPAB. Reid has refused to allow votes on either.

Reid and his colleagues missed the April 1 deadline to present a budget resolution as required by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, and likely will also miss the April 15 deadline by which a budget must be approved.

The Senate is currently on recess until April 16.

The Supreme Court likely will issue a ruling on the constitutionality of Obamacare sometime in June.

Republicans are expected to continue to attack the lack of a budget as the election approaches.

"There is no higher responsibly in United States history than for this Congress to produce a serious financial plan for the country," Sessions said. "If Republicans are honored with a majority in the Senate next year, we will produce a budget."