How reconciliation works in Congress

WASHINGTON — President Obama and congressional Democrats plan to pass major health care legislation using a process called "reconciliation."

Republicans are protesting it, and some Democrats are uneasy, too. Here's how the process would work:

Q: Why are Democrats doing this?

A: Because it usually takes 60 votes to cut off debate in the Senate. Democrats now control 59 of the 100 seats, and Republicans are united in opposing the health care legislation, so it would be difficult for Democrats to get 60 votes.

Reconciliation bills can't be filibustered; they can pass with a simple majority. If Democrats can muster as few as 50 votes, Vice President Joe Biden could break the tie to pass the legislation.

Q: Why do Republicans object so much? Haven't they used this tactic before?

A: Yes, many times. However, they say the tactic is intended to be used only on budget-related matters, not to force through substantive policy legislation on a narrow partisan majority. While they've used reconciliation in the past to cut taxes and overhaul welfare, in some cases with bipartisan support, they say this is different.

Q: What's likely to happen next?

A: The House of Representatives is expected to try to approve the health care bill that the Senate approved on Dec. 24. If that happens, then a second bill would be offered. That bill would be the reconciliation piece; it would reconcile changes that the House wants with the Senate's original version.

Q: Do both houses then need to approve the second bill?

A: Yes. By simple majorities. That's 216 votes in the House and 51 in the Senate.

Q: How much debate is permitted on a reconciliation measure?

A: 20 hours in each chamber.

Q: What can be included in such a bill?

A: Only budget-related provisions. In other words, it's unlikely the bill could contain new policies on abortion or other non-fiscal matters. However, the bill could adjust taxes, change Medicaid reimbursement policies or increase federal aid to lower-income people to help them afford health insurance. Those are all items on which the House and Senate had disagreed.

Q: Are amendments permitted?

A: Only if they are germane, meaning they have to have direct relevance to the reconciliation bill.

Q: Couldn't amendments tie up the bill endlessly?

A: Yes. Offering an amendment doesn't count against the 20 hours, and there's no limit on how many can be offered — a potential delaying tactic. However, once the 20 hours of debate is used, there can be no more debate.

Q: Are there other delaying tactics?

A: Potentially. Opponents could seek quorum calls, for instance, meaning 51 senators would have to be present for business to continue. They also could raise other parliamentary points of order that could require votes.

Q: Who decides what's an appropriate amendment?

A: The parliamentarian advises the presiding officer, presumably Biden, who as vice president is also the Senate president. Parliamentarians have a tough job — deciding whether an amendment is motivated by a desire to affect the budget, or creates new social policy, which would be out of order.

The presiding officer would make a ruling, and it would take 60 votes to overturn it. Since Republicans control 41 seats, that would be difficult.

Q: Is reconciliation used often?

A: It's hardly uncommon. It was created by the 1974 Budget Act, and was first used in 1980. Reconciliation has been used successfully 19 times and vetoed three times; 16 times Republican-controlled Senates used it.

It's been used for major legislation. President George W. Bush's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts were considered this way. So were the 1996 welfare overhaul and the 1997 Balanced Budget Act.