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Budget reconciliation: The GOP's powerful (and highly technical) weapon against Democrats

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Congressional Republicans started formal discussions this week about whether and how to use a powerful tool known as budget reconciliation, which could make it easier to pass bills to repeal Obamacare or pursue other GOP policy goals.

Budget reconciliation, an option created by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 is a possible way to create privileged legislation that could be brought up in the Senate by a simple majority vote, instead of the usual super majority needed to advance a bill. With 54 Republicans in the Senate, reconciliation is being seen as a possible way to move major legislation as early as this year, without having to worry about Democratic support.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said most House members don't even know what budget reconciliation is — it's a tool that could make it easier for Republicans to pass their major policy goals this year.
Image: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) indicated Tuesday that the idea of reconciliation will be brought up during this week's GOP retreat in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

"Our first goal here is to help everybody understand what the budget process is," he told reporters. "I would say 75 percent of the Congress has no idea what reconciliation is, reconciling spending and/or revenue to a budget agreement, so there's a lot of education that has to go on."

"At some point, we'll decide if we're going to have reconciliation, and if we do, we'll make some decision much later on," he added.

And in the Senate, reconciliation is supported by members such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

The GOP was not expected to leave Hershey with a fully developed reconciliation plan, in part because there is an ongoing debate within the party about exactly how to use it.

As a first step, both the House and the Senate would have to pass a joint budget resolution, something both are expected to do after the Senate's spotty record of passing budgets under Democratic rule.

That budget itself is not binding, but it can include instructions to the Appropriations Committees to write legislation that reconciles with the budget plan. That legislation must be budget related, but once it's written, the rules allow it to be put on a fast track for passage in the Senate.

Specifically, debate on the bill is limited, and in the Senate, just 51 votes are needed to advance it, not 60.

The legislation in theory could be on a wide range of issues. For example, it could include the repeal of Obamacare if that issue could be framed as a budget matter.

Democrats would likely fight that, but it doesn't appear to be a stretch. Obamacare itself was passed on a reconciliation bill, and Republicans believe it could be repealed with the same procedure used to create it.

But some Republicans believe reconciliation should be used to create a privileged bill on tax reform, or one to reduce the budget deficit. The tax cuts delivered under President George W. Bush were also done under reconciliation.

Part of the discussion in Hershey this week is expected to deal with which of these options, if any, to pursue.

The one big problem with a reconciliation bill is the same problem Republicans face with all other legislation — it can be vetoed by President Barack Obama. For that reason, a case could be made that reconciliation bills might end up be a fast track to a veto that can't be overridden in Congress.

Still, Republicans seem likely to try it, even if its only use is a way to paint Democrats as the new "party of no" that opposes all GOP ideas. Just before the retreat, a congressional aide told TheBlaze that at this point, "Republicans are expecting to include reconciliation instructions on their budget."

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