Monday, April 27, 2009

Budget Deal Includes Fast-Track for Health Reform

by Walter Alarkon. Originally published in The Hill, Friday April 24

Democrats in Congress and the White House have struck a tentative budget deal that includes reconciliation instructions that will make it easier to push through healthcare reform this year.

The deal, which still needs approval from the full House and Senate, would allow Democrats to pass healthcare reform with just a simple majority in the Senate, instead of the 60 votes needed to pass most controversial legislation, according to a congressional aide.

The budget agreement does not include reconciliation instructions for climate change legislation, which both Senate Republicans and Democrats have argued against.

The decision to include reconciliation instructions will likely rile Republicans, who portrayed the use of the maneuver as an attack on Senate rules. But top Democrats have said that they'll resort to reconciliation rules if Republicans remain unwilling to cooperate on long-awaited healthcare legislation.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) stressed that the deal has yet to be finalized. He noted that he and House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.), who held talks on the budget Thursday night, still need to present "options" on the budget resolution to their fellow colleagues.

"There is still a fair amount of work to be done and colleagues to check with before we can reach a final agreement," Conrad said. "But we are hopeful we will be able to complete work next week."

Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, said that using the reconciliation process goes against Democrats' talk of bipartisanship.

"A reform of our health care system – a massive legislative undertaking that will impact every American – should be done through the normal debate and amendment process," Gregg said in a statement. "To circumvent that process in favor of ramming through a partisan plan that needs only a simple majority to pass is a far cry from the bipartisanship that has been promised."

Obama administration officials, including White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and White House Budget Director Peter Orszag, have been meeting with congressional Democrats this week to hammer out an agreement before President Obama's 100th day in office, which is Wednesday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he hopes to hold a final Senate vote on passing the budget resolution on Wednesday, which is also when Obama will hold a primetime news conference.

If it passes, the president will be able to tout progress toward his goals of energy independence and healthcare and education reform. The budget calls on lawmakers to pass legislation that will reform the healthcare system, reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil and increase access to higher education without adding to the deficit. The budget, however, does not specify how those goals would be reached and how they would be paid for.

The tentative budget deal would set the non-defense discretionary spending in 2010 at levels lower than Obama and the House's requests but greater than the request from the Senate. Obama's budget called for $540 billion in such spending, the House called for $533 billion and the Senate called for $525 billion.

The agreement would also prevent the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) from hitting upper-middle-class taxpayers for another three years, which is what Senate Democrats had called for. The House plan wanted an AMT patch that would expire after one year, while the Obama administration had called for indexing the threshold at which taxpayers are hit by the tax to inflation, a proposal that would have generated more revenue but increased the tax burden on above-average earners.

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