Over the past several days, congressional leaders in both the House and Senate have claimed that a bill by Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) is “our best, last chance to get repeal and replace done.” They have made such claims because the press keeps “reporting” that Republicans’ “power to pass health care legislation through a party-line vote in the Senate expires on September 30.”
Don’t you believe it. The Senate’s 52 Republicans have multiple options open to keep the Obamacare repeal process alive after September 30. The only question is whether they have the political will to do so.
Option 1: Set a Senate Precedent
Democrats started the misinformation campaign regarding a supposed September 30 “deadline.” Politico reported at the start of the month that “the Senate parliamentarian has ruled that Republicans face a September 30 deadline to kill or overhaul the law with only 50 votes, Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee said.”
That assertion carries one big flaw: The Senate parliamentarian does not “rule.” The Senate as a body does—and that distinction makes a big difference. The procedural question centers around when, and whether, budget reconciliation instructions expire.
Budget reconciliation provides an expedited process for the Senate to consider matters of a fiscal nature. Reconciliation’s limits on debate and amendments preclude filibusters, allowing the bill to pass with a simple (i.e., 51-vote) majority rather than the usual 60 votes needed to break a filibuster and halt debate. (For additional background, see my May primer on budget reconciliation here.)
In one of its first acts upon convening in January, Congress passed a budget resolution for Fiscal Year 2017, which included instructions for health-related committees in the House and Senate to produce reconciliation legislation—legislation intended to “repeal-and-replace” Obamacare. But Fiscal Year 2017 ends on September 30, and Congress (thus far at least) hasn’t completed work on the reconciliation bill yet. So what happens on September 30? Does a reconciliation measure fail? Or can Congress continue work on the legislation, because the budget resolution set fiscal parameters for ten fiscal years (through 2026), not just the one ending on September 30?
Earlier this month, the parliamentarian advised Senate staff of her viewpoint that the reconciliation instructions would terminate on September 30—meaning the bill and process would lose their privileged status and access to the expedited Senate procedures. But her opinion remains advisory and not binding on either the chair or the body as a whole.
There is literally no precedent on this particular Senate procedural question of whether and when reconciliation instructions expire. If the chair—either Vice President Mike Pence, Senate President Pro Tempore Orrin Hatch (R-UT), or another Senate Republican presiding—wishes to disregard the parliamentarian’s opinion, he or she is free to do so.
Alternatively, if the chair decides to agree with the parliamentarian’s opinion, a 51-vote majority of Republicans could decide to overturn that ruling by appealing the chair’s decision. In either event, the action by the Senate—either the chair or the body itself—would set the precedent, not the opinion of a Senate official who currently has no precedent to guide her.
Option 2: Pass a New Budget
Because there is no precedent to the question of when reconciliation instructions expire, Republican senators can set a precedent on this question themselves—keeping in mind it will apply equally when Republicans are in the minority. But if senators believe that disregarding the parliamentarian’s opinion—even on a question where she has no precedent to guide her—might jeopardize the legislative filibuster, they can simply pass a new budget for Fiscal Year 2018, one that includes reconciliation instructions to allow for Obamacare “repeal-and-replace.”
While the Congressional Budget Act limits the use of reconciliation to one reconciliation measure (one tax bill and one spending bill, or one with both tax and spending provisions) per budget, it does not limit the number of budgets a Congress can pass in a given fiscal year. Indeed, as the Congressional Research Service notes, the Budget Act as originally written required adopting two budget resolutions per year.
While that requirement has since been changed, Congress could still pass multiple budget resolutions in a given year, along with a reconciliation measure for each. Congress could pass a Fiscal Year 2018 budget resolution with reconciliation instructions for Obamacare repeal this month, complete work on the Obamacare bill, then pass another budget resolution with reconciliation instructions for tax reform.
Congressional leaders apparently want to portray the Graham-Cassidy bill as a binary choice—either support it, or support keeping Obamacare in place. The facts turn that binary choice into a false one. Republicans have every opportunity to work to enact the repeal of Obamacare they promised the American people, regardless of the opinion of an unelected Senate official. No legislator should use an arbitrary—and false—deadline of next week to rationalize voting for a bad bill, or abandoning his or her promises altogether.