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Commentary: Big risks if Obama acts boldly on budget

  • Story Highlights
  • Julian Zelizer: Ordinarily, legislative procedure is of little interest to most people
  • He says the budget reconciliation process could give Obama a big opportunity
  • President could use it to pass health-care plan with just 50 Senate votes, he says
  • Zelizer: The reward could be big but there's also a risk of a split among Democrats
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By Julian E. Zelizer
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. His new book, "Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security -- From World War II to the War on Terrorism," will be published this fall by Basic Books. Zelizer writes widely on current events.

Julian Zelizer says Obama could act boldly on the budget but there would be a price to pay in party disunity.

Julian Zelizer says Obama could act boldly on the budget but there would be a price to pay in party disunity.

PRINCETON, New Jersey (CNN) -- Americans are usually uninterested in legislative procedure. The technical rules that govern the House and Senate are of little concern to average citizens except for those rare moments when procedures become tied up with major policy battles.

Older Americans may remember, when in the early 1960s, many citizens watched as southern Democrats filibustered civil rights legislation in 1964 until Illinois Republican Everett Dirksen backed President Johnson by ending the debate through a procedure known as cloture.

Congressional procedure is in the news once again. President Obama is thinking about using the budget reconciliation process, which prohibits a filibuster, to push through the Senate the many proposals that he introduced to Congress in last month's address.

Reconciliation would only require a majority vote in the Senate rather than the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster (the Democrats control at least 58 seats).

Not only would the administration include tax and spending proposals in the legislation, but health care and possibly environmental measures as well. This would be a bold political move.

"We'd like to avoid it if possible," Budget Director Peter Orszag recently explained, "But we're not taking it off the table."

Orszag added that history was on the president's side: "Pretty much every major piece of budget legislation going back to April 1981, April '82, April 1990, April 1993, the 1990 Act, the 2001 tax legislation, they were all done through reconciliation. Yet somehow this is being presented as an unusual thing."

The budget reconciliation process was created as part of the budget reforms of 1974 when Congress attempted to centralize its budget-making process so that it could counteract the "Imperial Presidency."

Reconciliation was an effort to allow Congress to fine-tune taxing and spending decisions made by the committees so that the final budget matched the initial guidelines proposed by Congress. The reconciliation process changed by the 1980s, but the effect of providing Congress and the president one avenue through which to avoid a Senate filibuster remained intact.

Several presidents, as Orszag argued, have used reconciliation to pass legislation, including every president since Ronald Reagan. Now President Obama's administration is thinking of doing the same thing, although he might expand reconciliation to include two major policy initiatives -- national health-care reform and environmental regulations -- that go well beyond the budget.

To include such sweeping changes as health care in reconciliation would go far beyond what previous presidents have attempted to do with this process.

The appeal of avoiding a Senate filibuster is strong. Democrats and Republicans who face divided government have been extraordinarily frustrated that the modern Senate essentially requires 60 votes on any significant piece of legislation. This has become a recipe for inaction.

But what are the risks for the administration? The first risk is that Republicans will become so furious with Obama's use of this tactic that any chance of bipartisanship will disappear and in future Republicans will be even more willing to use dilatory tactics to block the administration's priorities.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, warned that including health care in reconciliation would do "serious damage to our bipartisan effort." Minority Whip John Kyl of Arizona warned that it would turn the bills into a "purely partisan exercise."

But this particular risk is probably not enough to scare off the White House. After all, there is no substantial evidence that Republicans will be willing to join in supporting the administration at any time in the future.

At the height of Obama's popularity and in one of the gravest economic crises that the nation has faced, only three Republicans were willing to vote in favor of the stimulus legislation. Although the conservative movement is divided and in search of leadership, congressional Republicans remained disciplined and united, willing to vote as a bloc against the president.

The bigger risk has to do with Democrats themselves. Like Republicans, Democrats have remained relatively united since 2006. But by using reconciliation, the administration would be packaging together several bills, each of which has the potential to cause serious fissures within the party.

The increased spending in the budget has already caused a coalition of "New Democrats" led by Sen. Evan Bayh to warn about about its effect on the deficit, as well as to question the proposed tax hikes on Americans who earn between $250,000 and $400,000.

The environmental programs will certainly open up long-standing splits between legislators from industrial states and those from suburban-heavy areas more sympathetic to cracking down on pollution.

Finally, as President Clinton learned in 1993 and 1994, health-care proposals will stimulate internal divisions over questions about financing as well as the proper role for government versus private insurers.

By trying to do everything at once, President Obama could potentially divide the Democratic Party, creating some of the same problems that President Carter faced in the late 1970s, at the same time that Republicans remain united.

A rule named after Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia allows senators to remove specific measures that are not directly related to the budget, and this could become a tool to cut up the legislation that does pass, leaving Obama with much less than he wanted -- and a party that is fractured.

The benefits of reconciliation are clear, and the risk of partisan anger should not be overstated.

He might need to make this move if he wants to get such sweeping legislation given the partisan environment of Washington. Yet the president must move very carefully if he chooses this route and make certain that in the process of obtaining speed and efficiency, he does not cause excessive damage to the party he will lead in the next three years.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

All About Barack ObamaFederal BudgetHealth Care Policy

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